After a close race for the top seat of B.C.’s half a million-strong union federation, Irene Lanzinger was elected President of the BC Federation of Labour in November, 2014.
Lanzinger is the first woman and the first teacher to assume the position. She began her teaching career in 1978 as a secondary science and math teacher in Abbotsford and was a long-time union activist with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF).
As president of the BC Federation, Lanzinger says she will carry forward the vision of labour solidarity promoted by her predecessor, Jim Sinclair. She is adamant that the Federation represents both unionized and non-unionized workers in British Columbia. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you first get involved with the labour movement or in progressive politics more generally?
I was teaching here in Vancouver, and my school needed a rep for the Status of Women committee and I put my hand up. We were in bargaining at the time, it was 1991. We had local bargaining back then and I volunteered for the bargaining committee and it was actually probably the bargaining committee that drew me in. I got up to speak at a few meetings and people talked me into running. Most of the time I’ve been kind of persuaded to run for something.
Is there a history of labour unionism in your family?
No. My parents were immigrants from Austria, they came in the 1950s. I was the only member of the family born in Canada, shortly after they arrived. My father was a car dealer and a bit conservative in his politics. Many activists come from parents who were part of a movement, especially my generation but no, I didn’t. I had wonderful lovely parents but they were not left-wing activists.
Though I have to say they came from a European tradition that I think values public services. If you look at Austria now it’s one of the countries that comes up high on social programs, it’s very good health-care system. So they do come from that tradition for sure.
What drew you to teaching initially?
I like kids and I have a science degree. I’m qualified to teach science and math. I love that subject area. This is not a very widely known fact about me: I went back east to train as a meteorologist because my first degree is in physics. I was being trained and hired by the government and I was going to end up in a military base forecasting weather for the military and I just thought, ‘you know what, I would rather be a teacher then that.’
So I came back to B.C. and went to UBC for teacher training. I loved teaching and to some degree still miss it. One of my favourite work environments is the high school. it’s just very exciting and fun and the energy of the kids just kind of permeates the building. It’s a difficult job, I consider it one of the most difficult jobs I’ve had. But we’ll see how being the president of the BC Fed matches teaching grade nine. I did love it.
What role do you think a Labour Federation should ideally play in relation to unions, the labour movement, and in society more generally?
There are two things I would say about that. Our primary responsibility is to our affiliates. They pay to have this organization and they are dedicated to it and participate. We are fortunate for that in B.C. So we coordinate their bargaining, we help with organizing, we get them together on health and safety issues. We coordinate the work of affiliates and help them do their work better and be stronger by belonging to the collective of the BC Fed.
But in B.C., and I’d say this is probably true of many federations of labour across the country, we also see ourselves as speaking for all workers. So we run a minimum wage campaign that if it’s successful, will benefit mostly non-union workers. We’ve been very strong advocates for health and safety for non-union workers.
I think that primarily unions make the world a more equal place and they do that by bargaining better wages and benefits for their members and forcing employers to share their profits. But they also do that by being advocates for social justice on a broad range of issues. So that’s the role we play, and I think it’s a very important one.
In the press, a lot has been made of the fact that you’re the first woman leading the BCFed and the first teacher to ever hold this position in Canada. Do you think you’ll bring different perspectives to your work? Will those identities actually come to bear upon your work in a particular way?
I do think that women make a difference, and having more women in leadership roles makes a difference. Absolutely. I’ve been a feminist for a long time. And I think that we have to promote women in leadership roles. It does bring balance, it does bring a different perspective. And it brings the best people.
I also think it’s important from a role-model perspective, the president of the Fed in B.C. is a fairly prominent person in terms of media exposure and I think it’s good for young women to first of all see a woman speaking up for workers’ rights but also to see a woman in an important role in the province. And we do see, I have to say, we still see a majority of unions led by men. We still have some work to do in that regard. So I think that having a woman as president of the fed is an important step. […]
And I think you bring skills, as a teacher, certainly, with people and managing some difficult situations and that’s always useful in the labour movement. We have complex politics, I love it but everyone is not always in agreement. I think I bring some skills in terms of speaking to the public and bringing people together and working in a cooperative and collaborative way.
The fact that I’m the first teacher, to some degree it indicates that teachers were a bit late to join the federation of labour. We’ve only been members of the Fed for 11 or 12 years and we should have been members for longer in my view. But it took us a long time. Part of it was that Principals and Vice Principals were part of the bargaining unit for a long time so you had a mix of what was essentially workers and management in the organization and frankly that just makes them more conservative organizations and less inclined to join labour.
What campaigns and issues do you hope to tackle in your first year as president?
The biggest campaign we are going to have is a minimum wage campaign. We call it Fight for 15, we’re fighting for a 15$ minimum wage in B.C. and we just launched that campaign in November at the BCFL Convention. We have an event the 15th of every month, so we are going to try and take that campaign around the province and get a real broad grassroots support for that. This campaign is really important because we have the highest poverty rate in the country. We are also the only province that doesn’t already have a poverty reduction plan.
The other thing we’ll work on is organizing. We have some concerns about declining union density for sure. It’s a difficult organizing environment because both provincially and federally governments have passed laws that have made it more difficult to organize. But even in a difficult organizing environment our affiliates are organizing and we are going to try and help them as much as we can to get more workers organized in B.C. because that’s another way that we create equality in the province.
What are the major challenges facing workers unions in British Columbia and the Country more generally?
It’s been a very difficult environment for both bargaining and organizing. There’s a simple reason for that, it’s not the only reason, and it’s probably more complicated if you drill down. But the primary reason is that we’ve had governments that don’t support unions and that have operated in an anti-union way. The government of British Columbia is a prime example of that.
What are your hopes and predictions for the upcoming Federal election?
In my view we have to defeat the Harper government and have a government that is more supportive of workers and more supportive of public services and a better immigration policy, better policy around EI, better rules around temporary foreign workers and we’ll be working hard on the federal election to elect progressive candidates, we support the NDP we are pretty clear about that. And we’ll be working with our affiliates to work hard on that election.
Ella Bedard is rabble’s labour intern. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.