Irene Lanzinger | BCBusiness

Irene Lanzinger | BCBusiness

The B.C. Fed’s new boss on declining unionization rates, a $15 minimum wage and why business is not the enemy

Irene Lanzinger, recently elected president of the B.C. Federation of Labour and the first woman to hold the post, didn’t waste time making good on her campaign pledge to maintain the Fed’s activist tradition of standing up for workers. Barely a week into the job, she had already visited two picket lines, while vowing to provide a voice to all workers in the province, whether union or non-union. Daughter of immigrant parents from Austria, Lanzinger made her union mark as president of the militant B.C. Teachers’ Federation, before moving to the labour federation as secretary-treasurer in 2010. The 60-year-old math and science teacher won organized labour’s top job, replacing Jim Sinclair after his 15 years at the helm, by just 57 votes over challenger Amber Hockin, who had called for a change in direction by the federation.

B.C.'s total unionization rate
1997 ... 36.5%
2001... 35%
2007 ... 32%
2013 ... 31.5%
In 1973, the rate was 42%

After 104 years, the B.C. Federation of Labour finally has its first woman president. What does that mean to you?
It’s about time. Women represent half the unionized workers in this province. There’s also the importance of role modelling. I believe that young women seeing a woman representing half a million people, speaking out on workers’ rights and progressive issues, is important. I will be out there as often as I can, and I hope there are young women who are influenced by that in a positive way.

You are also the first leader of the federation from the public sector. Does that indicate the private sector, where unionization rates have fallen dramatically, is losing its prominence in the labour movement?
It’s probably good to have a public sector president, given that we are now a majority of the union movement. But no, we are not going to be the future face of labour. We are as concerned about declining unionization there as are our brothers and sisters in the private sector. It shows we have some organizing work to do. We want to move those numbers up, whatever union we come from.

In 1984, workdays lost in B.C. because of strike totalled 813,500. In 2013, the total was 93,500.

Well, that may be difficult. The unionization rate in this once-union-heavy province now stands sixth in Canada at 31.5 per cent, trailing even Prince Edward Island. Are British Columbians turning away from unions?
I don’t get that sense. I think that perception is the result of a kind of narrative established by anti-union, anti-tax political forces who want to cut public services. We’ve had governments, aided by some right-wing media outlets, that try to discredit unions. Yet, if you ask people whether they’d like to have a union job or not, most would rather have a union job because they know that means better wages and benefits, and there’s someone to go to if you get into trouble, particularly on health and safety issues. Good wages and benefits and union jobs are good for the economy and good for the community. Everyone should support that, including governments. And one day, we’re going to have governments who do that.

You are quite the optimist.
I am. You can’t be president of the B.C. Federation of Labour without being an optimist. Otherwise, you’d run away and hide.

B.C. private sector unionization rate
1997 ... 24%
2001 ... 22.8%
2007 ... 19.5%
2013 ... 18%

% of B.C. unionized workforce in private sector
1997 ... 51.7%
2001 ... 48.8%
2007 ... 47.5%
2013 ... 43.7%

The Federation is campaigning for a minimum wage of $15 an hour, a big jump from the current $10.25 (which, it was announced Thursday, will increase to $10.45 in September). Won’t that cause hardship for many struggling small businesses?
We had a small businesswoman at one of our rallies. She runs a food truck. She believes in paying her employees more than the minimum wage—$13 to $14 an hour. But she said it’s difficult for her to compete with fast food restaurants paying minimum wage. So when you raise the minimum wage, you actually create an equal playing field for the people who want to pay people better. Fundamentally, this is also a plea to make sure people who work full-time in B.C. are above the poverty line. We need a $15-an-hour minimum wage to do that. Our polling shows a lot of support for it.

How would you characterize relations with the business community? They are not generally your friends.
I do not regard employers as the enemy. Sometimes we have corporations that behave extremely badly, and we will say some very harsh things about them when we feel they are trampling on workers’ rights. But frankly, things are best for workers when unions and employers work together, settle a collective agreement without a strike. Isn’t that what we all want—good wages and benefits and people contributing to their communities? Some employers and some companies do want that. There are good employers out there. They are not making the media, but there are lots of them. There are even a few who respect unions.

Do you have one particular passion that drives you even more than the many other causes the labour movement takes on?
My big passion is fighting inequality. It’s fighting poverty. I think that unions make the world a more equal place. Many economists have talked about how higher rates of unionization and fair taxation lead to a more equal society, because those are the ways we force the rich to share their wealth. We have a terrible problem in this province around poverty. That requires a poverty reduction plan, with targets and timelines. We are doing our bit with the minimum wage campaign. We need government to do the other pieces: raise welfare rates, more social housing. That’s why I’m so passionate about my work in the labour movement, because I think it makes the world a better, more equal place. It raises people up out of poverty, and we have to do that way more than we have been.