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The new faces of B.C.’s labour movement

BC Federation of Labour pushing for more unions, better protections under new president
New BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore (right) and secretary-treasurer Singh Kailley were elected on Nov. 24, 2022. (Credit: BC Federation of Labour/Facebook)

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

New BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore is pledging to increase union organizing and push for better protection for contract workers and WorkSafeBC improvements.

A BC General Employees’ Union executive, Skidmore is the first openly queer person to lead the federation, whose affiliate unions represent more than 500,000 union workers. She is the second woman president in its 66-year history.

She succeeds Laird Cronk, an electrician-turned labour organizer who decided this year to step down after four years as president.

“Four years ago, Laird had faith in me,” said Skidmore, who served as secretary-treasurer in the federation.

Skidmore ran on a joint ticket with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Hermender Singh Kailley, who will replace Skidmore as the federation’s secretary-treasurer and become the first South Asian man to serve in that role. Both were acclaimed.

Kailley, whose parents are from Punjab, spoke candidly about the racism he experienced as a child in his victory speech. He announced he would now go by his full first name instead of Hermen, an anglicized shorthand. By the end of the day, he had pasted his new name on his convention ID badge.

“My union taught me how to fight for workers’ rights, and that’s a fight I’m bringing to the BC Fed,” Kailley said.

Overcoming past ‘real rifts’

Skidmore and Kailley take the helm of the federation as it enjoys relative stability and newfound political influence under a friendly BC NDP government.

“We’re in a really good place as a federation,” Skidmore said in a sit-down interview, still wearing the bedazzled sneakers she sported on the convention floor. “You can disagree and have conflict, but you can still have respect and unity even though we don’t agree on everything.”

Cronk says there were “real rifts” among member unions during the 16-year tenure of the BC Liberals. The very mention of the Liberals brought calls of “Shame!” during the federation’s convention this week.

“We spent 16 or 17 years yelling at empty buildings because we weren’t allowed in,” Cronk said. “You get in a siege mentality where not only are you not at the table, you’re likely on the menu.”

Now, Skidmore said the siege is over, and the federation is focused on growth.

Aiming to unionize precarious workers

B.C.’s government has introduced legislation that makes it far easier for workplaces to unionize, something Skidmore says affiliates are eagerly capitalizing on.

“The unions have been out there organizing like wild. And they’re growing the labour movement. They’re bringing un-unionized workers into unions. For me, that’s a big priority,” Skidmore said.

Other priorities include tackling what the federation calls “misclassification” — workers who are wrongly considered contractors instead of employees. They are not protected by the Employment Standards Act provisions and minimum wage laws, and can’t unionize.

Much of the B.C. government’s work on the file has focused on drivers and couriers for platform-based apps like Uber, DoorDash and SkipTheDishes.

But trade unions argue misclassification is also endemic in the construction industry. A report from the BC Building Trades released earlier this year argued misclassification in the industry was costing government more than $115 million in annual tax revenue and excluding 14,000 workers from key benefits and protections.

“The onus is on the company to prove these folks aren’t workers. The reality is these people are workers. They have precarious work, precarious hours — we have people in every industry working that way,” Skidmore said.

Kailley said the federation also wants to continue pushing B.C. to overhaul the compensation system for workers infected or injured on the job. The BC Liberals made major changes to WorkSafeBC during their term that unions argue saw it shift into an “insurance model” that leaves injured workers in the cold.

Saluted by Horgan and Eby

The son of Punjabi immigrants, Kailley went to high school in East Vancouver and became involved in the labour movement after a successful organizing drive when he was a technician in the film industry. He most recently served as the secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 502, which represents more than 3,000 dock workers on the Fraser River.

He and Skidmore briefly worked at the same supermarket on Grandview Highway, though at different times, and found to their surprise that they had mutual friends after they announced their intention to run together.

Skidmore went to high school in North Burnaby and became interested in labour politics at a young age. She began serving as a vice-president with the BC General Employees’ Union in 2018 and sits on the B.C. board of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning think tank. She also has considerable ties to the federal and provincial NDP. She serves as the federal party’s treasurer and ran unsuccessfully for the BC NDP in the Nechako Lakes constituency in 2013. She is also a BC NDP vice-president.

Both newly minted Premier David Eby and his predecessor John Horgan addressed the convention in Vancouver. Horgan said he carried an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ coin in his pocket as a lucky “rabbit’s foot.”

But the federation is still pushing government to work faster on a number of files, including workers’ compensation and more paid sick days, something Skidmore argued they could do in a respectful way.

Wins against discrimination

Skidmore and Kailley said their election is a win for their respective communities.

Kailley told delegates candidly about the racism he experienced as a child.

“I really wanted to be as un-Punjabi as possible, because I feared having to deal with that racism,” Kailley said. He never envisioned himself becoming a powerful labour leader.

“You’re socially programmed from when you’re young…. That you’re not good enough, you won’t be able to do it because you’re not part of the larger group. You’re different,” Kailley said. He was looking forward to the moment his parents in India would wake up and learn of his victory.

“This isn’t a checkbox. This is the leadership. There’s only two positions, and those two positions are being held by members from equity-seeking groups. That, I think alone, workers from across Canada should be proud of,” Kailley said.

“We’re not afraid to get our hands dirty,” Skidmore said. “We’re not afraid to do the work. In this role, it is important to acknowledge those glass ceilings when they’re broken. There’s always more to do.”

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