CANADA

A national player?

B.C.’s savvy labour leader eyes Bob White’s job

JENNIFER HUNTER January 11 1999
CANADA

A national player?

B.C.’s savvy labour leader eyes Bob White’s job

JENNIFER HUNTER January 11 1999

A national player?

CANADA

B.C.’s savvy labour leader eyes Bob White’s job

JENNIFER HUNTER

Ken Georgetti bounds over to his desk, slides open a drawer and retrieves a clear plastic bag full of photographs. “Here,” he says, offering a snapshot to his guest. It is a picture from the mid-1990s showing Georgetti, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, beside Glen Clark, then-minister of employment and investment and now premier of British Columbia. Both men have the same haircut: black locks cropped short, sideburns cleanly shaved. Both have clipped dark moustaches and intense chocolate-brown eyes. Both are buttoned up in sober navy suits and white shirts. Georgetti is a shade taller than Clark, but the resemblance between the two men is remarkable—they could be twins. “Separated at birth,” the now-bearded Georgetti says, with a big guffaw.

The image is also a metaphor for the symbiotic relationship between organized labour and the New Democratic Party government in British Columbia: mutually supportive, closely aligned. The premier has joked that the 46-year-old Georgetti is the 19th minister in his cabinet. “He has a huge amount of influence with the government in

Victoria,” says Jerry Lampert, president of the Business Council of British Columbia. Along with Clark—himself a former union activist—Georgetti is one of the most powerful and recognized men in the province, heading an organization of 460,000 members. Now, after 12 years as front man for the B.C. labour movement, the savvy unionist is being touted as a successor to 63-yearold Bob White, president of the Ottawabased Canadian Labour Congress, the umbrella group representing 2.3 million union members in national labour organizations. White announced his retirement in early December and Georgetti was immediately endorsed for the job by the influential Canadian Auto Workers. “If I can play a role nationally and the support is there,” says Georgetti, “I would consider it.”

Many, however, wonder why a man who wields so much authority on the local scene would want a job that has lost so much profile since the Liberals took office in 1993. The trend towards political and economic conservatism—reflected most recently in NDP Leader Alexa McDonough’s effort to shift her party to the centre—has dampened public interest in the labour movement; White, the firebrand who forcefully led

Canadian autoworkers out of the international union in 1984, almost vanished as a national figure when he became CLC chief in 1992. “Bob White found out too late that it’s an almost impossible task,” suggests White’s former comrade Buzz Hargrove, national president of the CAW. “There is no desire on the part of government and business to listen to labour.” John Richards, business professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., concludes the CLC “is like the monarchy. It has a prominent platform, but there’s no real power.” Hargrove, despite his union’s support of Georgetti for the CLC job, is not completely optimistic the B.C. union leader can solve organized labour’s many problems. “There are some real splits in the labour movement that can’t just be papered over,” Hargrove says. “Can Georgetti really pull people together? This will be a challenge.” In Ontario, for example, the split between publicand private-sector unions became exacerbated during Bob Rae’s NDP government in the early 1990s—particularly over the contentious Social Contract that rolled back public-sector wages. Some private-sector unions supported Rae’s initiative; others, like the CAW, bitterly fought it. The divide has widened since the provincial Conservais five government took on the public service and the teachers. “There is an ideological gap,” Hargrove concedes. Fear of job loss, meanwhile, is pushing some unions in Canada to sign long-term agreements—an issue union militants are fighting vigorously, believing it erodes collective bargaining.

As well, the rate of unionization is slowly declining, dropping nationally to 34.1 per cent of the labour force from 37.1 per cent in 1978. Unions are reaching beyond their traditional constituencies to garner new members. The United Steelworkers of America, for example, now represent administrative staff at the University of Toronto. All of this means a tough slog for the new CLC president. But the job, says Noah Meltz, who teaches industrial relations at the University of Toronto, “still has allure. It is still the pinnacle of the labour movement.”

Within organized labour, Georgetti is considered a moderate. He sits on the University of British Columbia board of governors and has lobbied national retailers to ban purchases of goods produced by Third World children. “Before he took over the federation it was run by stereotypical labour leaders who were by their very nature combative,” says Mark Thompson, an industrial relations expert at UBC. “Georgetti is very much the new breed—articulate and intelligent.” He is even respected by even his most pugnacious foes, like Phil Hochstein, executive vice-president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, who has battled the growth of unionism in the construction industry. “He is not an ideologue like other people in the union movement,” says Hochstein. “As a result, he

has developed a powerful constituency.”

Still, despite labour’s enormous influence in British Columbia, job losses have lowered the rate of unionization, mirroring the national decline. And while favourable changes to the labour code were made after the NDP under Mike Harcourt took office in 1991—including a ban on replacement workers during strikes—unions do not always get what they want. There is still no sectoral bargaining—which imposes the same contract on companies operating within the same sphere—except in construction.

Through hard work, though, Georgetti has managed to more than double the B.C. Federation of Labour membership, bringing in professional groups such as healthscience workers. The federation now represents 82 per cent of unionized B.C. workers. Since he became president in 1986, he has also pushed the federation into new areas of activity: using pension plan funds to set up companies such as Greystone Properties— which builds condominiums with union labour—and the Working Opportunities Fund, a labour-backed venture-capital fund. ‘The understanding of business and economics we’ve gained by doing these things has been invaluable to us,” says Georgetti, who follows the stock market closely.

Georgetti learned at a young age about the dynamics between business and labour. He grew up in the rough and tumble town of Trail in southeastern British Columbia, and after high school he became an underground miner in Golden, B.C., eventually heading back to Trail to join Comineo. He be came active in the town’s United Steelworkers local, and was elected president in 1981. In 1984, he went to work for the provincial federation. His first test as rookie president in 1986 was fighting a new labour code instituted by the Social Credit government of premier William Vander Zalm that imposed restrictions on rights such as picketing. Georgetti led a successful one-day strike against the legislation, and was considered instrumental in electing the NDP in 1991.

Since then, there has been controversy about his relationship with the party. Critics say a four-year romance with provincial Finance Minister Joy MacPhail, which ended last year, underlined the NDP’s coziness with labour. (The two met at the federation where MacPhail worked as Georgetti’s executive assistant.) “We had enough respect for one another that it didn’t enter into any aspect of our [official] dealings,” a discomfited Georgetti told Maclean’s. He can be prickly about questions like these, underscoring the observation of Harcourt that Georgetti has a mercurial temperament: “He can quickly go from being charming to being in a passionate Italian temper.” But that passion may be just the catalyst to fire up the CLC and bring labour back into public prominence. □