Labour’s love a lost Games legacy

In late January, the BC Federation of Labour issued a bulletin to its affiliates that symbolized one of the great missed legacies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Far from a political broadside, it set out the procedures agreed with VANOC to ensure union representatives had access to members working in Olympic venues during the Games.
But in the eyes of BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, the bulletin was an absolutely minimal achievement compared to the potential the Games had offered to change the bad dynamic of BC labour relations.
“A great opportunity was lost,” he said on the eve of the Games, “not only to form a partnership, which was unfortunate, but to engage BC workers more in building venues, staffing them and providing a huge amount of added value.”
Although some unions were critical of the Games, the federation passed a motion in support of the bid in late 2002 after a heated convention debate.
“Our position was not to oppose the Games,” Sinclair says, “but to make sure workers did not pay twice, once with taxes and a second time with job loss.”
At the same time, the federation began quiet discussions with VANOC about formal co-operation on a wide range of issues important to both sides.
Labour was building on efforts begun by the BC and Yukon Building Trades Council that were inspired by a formal partnership between Sydney’s regional government, the local organizing committee and Australia’s very militant unions during the 2002 Summer Olympic Games.
Wayne Peppard, the council’s executive director, had a vision for a “collaborative Games” that would produce legacies of excellence in workplace safety, jobs training, and minimum standards for contract workers, while mobilizing the workforce to deliver on time, on budget and at the best possible quality.
The philosophy was completely consistent with VANOC’s commitments to establish new standards of environmental and social sustainability.
It was a tough sell to other union leaders at a time when the BC Liberals were rolling back labour standards and even contracts.
But the fatal opposition came from Victoria.
Labour cynics were vindicated when a draft memorandum of understanding between VANOC and the federation was quietly deep-sixed by VANOC, on Victoria’s orders, in the months leading up to the 2005 election.
Nor did the Building Trades secure a single positive response to their overtures, despite their close ties to VANOC chair Jack Poole, who had long headed Concert Properties, itself controlled by union pension funds.
To VANOC’s credit, senior staff picked up the file after the election to maintain informal connections with the federation and key affiliates.
There was much to discuss. Unionized workers are in every workplace vital to Games success: the airport, hospitality, civic and private venues, media, communications, transportation, health care and much more.
Tens of thousands of other unionized workers stood to be impacted, including film industry workers who jobs may go on pause and workers in facilities like Hastings Park Race Track, closed to create a security perimeter.
Ultimately, Sinclair says, almost all the issues were resolved on the ground, noting initiatives like VANOC efforts to ensure displaced track workers found alternate work. The federation’s Occupational Health and Safety Centre even delivered some training programs under contract to VANOC.
But the big prize was thrown away.
When labour offered to help ensure the success of our province’s time in the global spotlight – perhaps opening the door to a new and enduring relationship — Victoria simply turned its back.

March 2-8, 2010