“Personally, I’m opposed to it,” said Aaron Ekman, candidate for secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour at its Vancouver convention this week. “But there’s no doubt it’s the most controversial issue in the labour movement right now.”
If Ekman sounds candid about his position on Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline extension, it’s because he can afford to be. He’s running unopposed for his position. At the top of the ticket his running mate is Amber Hockin, a CUPE activist and Pacific region director of the Canadian Labour Congress. She’s in a tight race for the presidency with Irene Lanzinger, the federation’s current secretary-treasurer and retiring President Jim Sinclair’s hand-picked successor.
On the same day that Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs received a standing ovation from delegates for promising to climb Burnaby Mountain and be arrested for civil disobedience, Ricochet stopped by the convention in hopes of getting both candidates on the record with their positions on the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal. While their soundbites were well polished, neither was willing to take a position or even admit their personal feelings on the issue.
Both candidates cited a series of conditions necessary for them to support the pipeline: that it comply with existing laws and environmental assessments, that it be done with consent of First Nations, that communities are involved and that it produce union jobs.
But even if all those conditions are met, 97 per cent of climate scientists agree that we cannot afford to extract most of the oil in the tar sands without triggering catastrophic climate change. So shouldn’t climate change alone be reason enough to oppose the pipeline, even if those conditions are met?
Both candidates dodged this question, with Hockin pointing out that the federation also represents resource sector workers, and Lanzinger arguing that the federation represents a number of affiliates with different views on the issue.
For years, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal has been the most hotly debated political issue in B.C. Despite many affiliates, including most of the large public sector unions and Unifor, joining with First Nations and environmental groups in opposition to Northern Gateway, the federation avoided taking a clear public position.
Ricochet asked if the candidates had a personal position on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and if they would share their opinion.
Hockin explained that she had “mixed feelings,” while Lanzinger refused to answer the question.
In democracies, leaders take positions, even and especially when those positions could be controversial. It is a sad reflection on this electoral race that the candidates appear to be conspiring to keep their members in the dark about their feelings on one of the most important issues they will face if elected.
Don’t members deserve to know what position each candidate will take on the issue if she becomes the federation’s new president? Isn’t that information primordial to the decision confronting those members this week?
Indeed, it leads one to wonder what the point of a democracy is, if our candidates decline to differ on the issues that matter most to us.
The conspiracy of silence does, however, set up an interesting convention dynamic. If either candidate comes out before Thursday’s vote and takes a clear position against the pipeline, it would likely be enough to put them over the top.
That’s because even if rank-and-file union members are divided when it comes to balancing the few short-term jobs created against the long-term consequences of pipelines — and polls suggest they aren’t — the floor of the Vancouver convention is filled with the most engaged among their number: union activists, shop stewards and active members of the labour movement. In other words, the type of “foreign-funded radicals” our prime minister is fond of railing against.
You wouldn’t need a straw poll to know that the room is not friendly territory for pipelines, and most delegates Ricochet spoke to not only freely expressed opposition to the pipeline, but also concern that the the union movement could lose younger generations of workers entirely if they don’t see their concerns about the climate reflected in the positions of their unions.`
This brings us back to the hotly contested vote. Ambivalence towards both candidates was the most common position among the delegates spoken to, and it appears that this race remains up for grabs, as neither candidate has succeeded in energizing delegates.
Meanwhile, young workers and other delegates are organizing a trip to Burnaby Mountain on Wednesday evening to bolster the ongoing protest against Kinder Morgan’s survey work, a standoff that has seen over 80 people arrested for civil disobedience.
Will either candidate have the courage to take a position, especially if it could secure her victory? Will pushback from the convention floor force them to differentiate themselves?
If neither does, it will be one more reason for young workers to look elsewhere for leadership on the issues that matter to them. And that would be the most unfortunate outcome of all.