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Warm Clark-union relations to be tested by LNG labour plan

B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 31, 2014.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

B.C. Premier Christy Clark reaped accolades from union leaders for settling the Port Metro Vancouver strike last week – a success that traces its roots to a new relationship she has forged with organized labour.

The strength of that relationship will be tested when her Liberal government rolls out a labour plan for liquefied natural gas – one that has been drafted with the input of the province's top union leaders.

The plan – soon to be unveiled – is designed to address questions about the skills shortage that could be the province's biggest hurdle to development of an LNG industry. Union leaders will be looking for evidence that their suggestions, including new apprenticeship training opportunities, have been incorporated.

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But just the fact that the Premier has opened the door to sitting down with labour leaders – something her predecessor Gordon Campbell would not do – helped pave the way for last week's settlement at the port.

Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, was unabashed in his praise for the Premier for coming to the table.

Since the May, 2013, election, the Premier has held a series of meetings with private- and public-sector union leaders, in the pursuit of her jobs and skills training agenda. The B.C. NDP have long claimed to be the party of labour, but Ms. Clark's election victory is based in part on her appeal to private-sector union workers who saw her as a better choice to protect and expand job opportunities.

The Premier and Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, have developed a surprisingly effective working relationship in recent months.

And Mr. Sinclair was one of the backroom facilitators in the B.C. labour movement who encouraged Mr. Dias that a deal with Ms. Clark's government was possible.

The Unifor president flew to Victoria on March 26 with the intent of holding a news conference to announce his members would defy back-to-work legislation. But when he arrived and checked his phone messages, he discovered an invitation to talk with top government officials. His news conference was suspended, as was the debate on the proposed law.

His team appropriated a committee room in the legislature, where they spent the rest of the day until suppertime, as government officials and ministers shuttled back and forth, narrowing the gaps.

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The dispute began with about 1,200 non-union truckers who refused to work at the port starting on Feb. 26. Three hundred Unifor truckers later joined them, crippling the Port's operations – losses that amounted to $130-million each day.

Labour Minister Shirley Bond and Transportation Minister Todd Stone commandeered the office next door to the truckers – the minister of environment's suite – to minimize the time spent shuttling back and forth. The Premier, Finance Minister Mike de Jong and other cabinet ministers who had some inroads with the non-union truckers were all brought in at different times. It was a significant effort, considering that Ms. Clark had been adamant that it was a federal problem that required a federal solution. "My advice to the federal government is this: Almost all of the elements of this dispute, which are licensing and rates, lie solely within federal jurisdiction," she told reporters during the third week of the dispute.

It was Ms. Clark who was greeted with applause by truckers as she arrived to sign the agreement that would put them back to work. "You shouldn't have to fight if you can get a deal," she said.

Federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt was nowhere to be seen. Although the Prime Minister's Office was kept in the loop throughout the negotiations, Mr. Dias was blunt in crediting Ms. Clark for stepping in when Ottawa wouldn't engage.

"I think it is fair to say the provincial government was as frustrated as we were with the federal government," Mr. Dias said. The terms of the deal were laid out a week earlier, but Ottawa pulled the plug on it, he said, insisting that there could be no talks as long as the truckers continued their job action.

Ms. Clark's government went for a resolution instead. Meanwhile it is Ottawa, he said, that must bear responsibility for a strike that lasted a week longer than it needed to. "It was a $900-million screw up."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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