Four things Jim Sinclair can say with certainty about his time as president of the BC Federation of Labour

Every one of the hundreds of BC trade unionists who gathered at the Maritime Labour Centre Saturday night to pay tribute to outgoing BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair — who held the post for longer than any other incumbent — had his or her own reason why Jim’s leadership was important.

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Jim Sinclair, right, accepts honorary life membership in the ILWU at a tribute to his 15-year presidency of the BC Federation of Labour in a gathering at the Maritime Labour Centre on Jan. 10.

But it was Sinclair’s own assessment, delivered in a typically passionate, wide-ranging and self-reflective summation, that has remained with me and forced me to reflect on how the BC labour movement has evolved since Sinclair took the helm in 1999. (Irene Lanzinger was elected to the presidency in December.)

And, because it was Sinclair, he was emphatic that the legacies he was claiming were not a personal achievement, but a collective win for the wider labour movement.

(Disclosure: Jim was one of the first friends I made when I moved to Vancouver in 1976 and over the years I hired him once, he hired me twice, and we worked together on countless projects.)

False modesty? No, I don’t think so. Sinclair is a true believer in the value of solidarity and has countless examples to prove the validity of his convictions. Yes, he demonstrated personal leadership, time and again, but he relied on the contributions of countless others to make his work effective.

For Sinclair, it’s always “we won,” not “I won.” He believes the most important victories are the ones we win together. (By the way, those who think he has “retired” don’t know him. “Restarting” is more like it.)

At the end of the evening, there were four themes of his time at the Federation that remained with me. Let’s call them his legacy, or at least, part of it:

  • The labour movement remains a crucial factor in the life of the province. Elsewhere in Canada, with the possible exception of Quebec, labour is in eclipse. In BC, the union movement remains part of the wider debate about our society and where it should go. That’s due, in no small part, to Sinclair’s skills as an advocate and spokesperson.
  • The labour movement remains committed to political action. Soon after Sinclair became president, the New Democratic Party was reduced to two seats. He ensured that the federation remained committed to a partnership with the NDP that focussed on advancing the interests of working people, and played a critical role in the NDP’s eventual recovery.
  • The labour movement remains focussed on the needs of non-union workers. Whether it was in the fight for a $10 minimum age or his countless battles to win improved occupational health and safety for workers, Sinclair made sure that the federation was the best friend that non-union workers ever had.
  • The labour movement is engaged in the difficult struggle to design and build a sustainable economy, where “green jobs” produce decent wages and benefits that are broadly shared in society. Time and again, Sinclair helped lead new dialogues among environmental groups, unions, social movements, faith communities and the non-profit sector about our province’s future.

And, of course, there were the countless strikes, lockouts, campaigns and organizing drives over the years in which Sinclair played an irreplaceable role.

As an organizer, mediator and negotiator, Jim Sinclair has few peers. His achievements are not in doubt; what he does next is the interesting question.