B.C. Federation of Labour's Irene Lanzinger says labour movement needs to be bolder

This Labour Day, the B.C. Federation of Labour president reflects on the successes and challenges of B.C.'s labour movement.

Lanzinger wants to increase the rate of unionization

Irene Lanzinger, the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, says the labour movement needs to be bolder to stay relevant. (Irene Lanzinger)

In honour of Labour Day, The Early Edition's Stephen Quinn spoke with Irene Lanzinger, the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, on the state of B.C.'s labour movement.

This September, B.C.'s minimum wage will go up by 40 cents — to $10.85. You've been pushing for a $15 minimum wage. How much traction is that getting?

It's getting the traction with the public, it's the government that we're having difficulty with moving. In fact, I would argue, we've pushed them higher than they probably wanted to go.

They said they were going to raise it by the rate of inflation, but they're actually raising it 30 cents more than the rate of inflation, and i think that's a success of our campaign.

But more than government, small businesses say they can't afford to pay it.

I don't think so much small business. When you look at who pays minimum wage, it's actually big companies that are earning huge profits like Walmart or McDonald's. They earn huge profits by keeping people at poverty wages.  

Then of course, the small food services have to stay low because they can't compete with McDonald's, so that's a vicious circle.

When the government raises the minimum wage, it forces those big employers to raise their wages and allows small businesses to raise their wages as well.

There's a rise in temporary precarious jobs and more workers are being hired on temporary contracts. What's the labour movement doing for those workers?

The government likes to brag that we have low unemployment, and we have the largest increase in the number of jobs.

But last month, we lost 22,000 permanent full-time jobs, and they were replaced by 31,000 part-time, temporary jobs. So while it looks like the number of jobs went up, we actually lost full time jobs and gained part-time jobs.

That's a huge concern.

It's happening across industries. For example, even colleges and universities are replacing full time work with part time, term appointments.

One solution is to increase the rates of unionization, because it's through bargaining that you gain permanent jobs and you make it harder for the employer to replace full-time work with part-time work.

The economy we live in today is very different than the one in which the labour movement emerged from.

SFU historian Mark Leier argues that the labour movement has lost some of its strength over the last 30 to 40 years and as a result working conditions for people in Canada have stagnated and often gotten worse.

He says minimum wage is below where it should be. It's harder to unionize, people are working longer hours, and there is less job security.

Is the labour movement of today much weaker than it has been?

I think Mark is right. We need to be bolder and we need to be more innovative. We need to think of some new ways of doing things.

But I also think there was a move to the right. You look at Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the right-wing governments that have predominated in the industrial world, and they have gone out of their way to undermine the union movement and make the rules around organizing very, very difficult.

Even our Liberal government here in B.C. did that. They made it harder to organize when they came into power by changing the labour code rules.

There's a whole bunch of things we need to do — legally, politically, through organizing, and through activism in our unions. We need to take a look at all of those things to strengthen the labour movement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To hear the interview with Irene Lanzinger, click on the link labelled B.C. Federation of Labour President Irene Lanzinger on the relevance of B.C.'s labour movement

To hear the interview with SFU Professor Mark Leier, click on the link labelled SFU History Professor Mark Leier on the history of Labour Day