“Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid”

The letter to the editor was brief. Just five words published, I suspect, exactly as written: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” It was signed by one Brian Smith and whether that is the Brian Smith well remembered as a municipal and provincial politician or a Brian Smith I have never met or known, I thank him for his timely warning of the looming danger contained in Premier John Horgan’s threat to create a Crown corporation with a positive sounding title – BC Infrastructure Benefits.

I use the word “threat” rather than “promise” because, although we still await the details of the latest gospel of NDP salvation, there’s more threat than comfort in the announced assurance that once it is up and running, the new corporation will bring undreamed of benefits to every corner of the province. Local workers will get an abundance of job offers in the multitude of jobs destined to be created in the near future. Wages will be improved in all sectors; all will be well with the world – as long as you’ve joined a union and paid your dues.

We do not yet have a list of the massive government projects we are assured will soon be on hand to create riches for everyone from file clerks to high tech experts working in the construction industry – as long as they are bona fide card-carrying members of a trade union.

Ah, yes, the new Crown corporation will be responsible for hiring all workers on the multibillion-dollar construction horizon. Full details we hope will follow but here’s a direct quote from Horgan’s blueprint of the road to economic prosperity as reported in The Times Colonist’s Comment page July 18: “Within 30 days of employment on the job site, any non-union worker or a worker from another affiliation will be required to join the union for work specific to the project.”

Schedule: Government announces a decision on a mega project; big companies enter bids; winning company informs BC Infrastructure Benefits what its workforce needs are; BCIB assigns the workers who will already hold current union cards or will be given 30-days to get one; no card, no job.

Significantly, the quote is in a brief editorial on the same page as Brian Smith’s flashing red light warning: “Be afraid. Be very afraid”, written, I am sure, by someone who remembers this same battle being slugged out not so many years ago. I’m talking about the 1980s, the “restraint” years which saw the birth of British Columbia’s version of the Solidarity Movement with massive protests at the Legislature and in Vancouver by militant trade unionists.

Readers interested in inside stories of that trade union versus government should grab a copy of Bill Bennett, a Mandarin’s View by Bob Plecas. His chapter “Restraint” is fascinating, especially the final scene in Premier Bennett’s Okanagan home where the toughest labour leader in the province, Jack Munro and the premier finally agreed to terms – with a handshake.

Plecas notes the Vancouver Province reported: “The clear winner in the 13 days of public sector strikes and marathon weekend bargaining was Premier Bill Bennett’s government.” Labour reporter Rod Mickleburgh commented: “Bennett budged, but he budged on his terms.”

One of the many issues on the table during that year of “restraint” was the right of construction companies to hire non-union workers on government projects.

I’m sure Premier Horgan remembers those years, but a quick refresher might remind him it was foolish labour leaders who came close to marching their members like lemmings to what Vancouver Sun columnist Marjorie Nichols described as “collective self-destruction.” And, it was a tough, hard-hitting trade unionist to the core, common sense Jack Munro, who saw the folly of the path Solidarity was pursuing and agreed to  acceptable compromise.

The premier should remember the election that followed hard on the heels of restraint and the tumultuous debate over enforced union membership – the debate some Solidarity leaders were convinced, based on massed membership rallies, would translate to massed support at the polls.

It didn’t quite work out that way. When the polls closed on October 22, 1986, Social Credit had increased its majority by 15 seats to hold 47. New Democrats had retained 22.

I’m sure Brian Smith’s warning was directed primarily to the electorate. I’m also sure the electorate will understand it.

But, I also I think Premier Horgan and his faithful Green echo Andrew Weaver would do well to take it to heart, to “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Voters in BC don’t like to be told what they must join and pay membership dues to before they can earn a living.

 

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