Ken Georgetti confounded critics who said he'd fail as head of B.C.'s labour movement. But can he do the same when he climbs to the national leadership?
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau
OTTAWA - WHEN Ken Georgetti burst on to the British Columbia labour scene, there were snickers and there were whispers. But there weren't too many predictions of great success.
Too glib, some said. Too brash, said others, maybe a little too enamoured with himself. He was thought to be no match for a Social Credit government that wouldn't give the new B.C. Federation of Labour head the time of day.
That was 13 years ago.
Now, the 46-year-old pipefitter from Trail, B.C., is set to assume the country's top labour post as head of the 2.3 million-strong Canadian Labour Congress.
The job to replace outgoing president Bob White is Georgetti's for the taking.
And when he gets here, there will likely be whispers that he's too brash, maybe too glib and will have no pull with a Liberal government that won't give him the time of day.
Although no one, including Georgetti, has officially signalled their intention to seek the job at a May convention, he has the endorsement of White and powerful Canadian Auto Workers head Buzz Hargrove.
Canadian Union of Public Employees president Judy Darcy reportedly checked around for potential support, saw a national move to Georgetti and quickly pulled in her feelers.
So by May, Georgetti is expected to have found new homes for his West Coast bonsai trees.
He will reluctantly give up his trips to California's Napa Valley, where he searches for the perfect grapes for his homemade wine, and he'll take his place in a town where his influence with B.C. Premier Glen Clark will count for nothing when he comes calling on Finance Minister Paul Martin.
``He can have some dialogue with the Liberals, but he will have to understand that at the end of the day, they will make him pretty expendable if they have to,'' says White, who is stepping down as labour congress chief at age 63.
``A dialogue with (federal NDP leader) Alexa McDonough is nice and it's interesting, but he won't have access to the halls of power like he seems to have in B.C.''
But, he says, there should be no doubt that Georgetti will grow into the job.
Hargrove says Georgetti has a track record of pulling groups together.
``He has taken the same unions in B.C. that have been at each others' throats in Ontario and . . . in B.C. they're all working collectively on all the issues,'' Hargrove says.
``It'll be a tougher task nationally. There are major differences nationally and much of it is ideological. But he can forge consensus.''
Georgetti will inherit the reins of an organization that must first heal itself from within.
The Canadian Labour Congress is now riven, with battles pitting sector versus sector and region versus region - a test of Georgetti's vaunted conciliation skills.
Then, there is the another emerging rift between its leadership and the federal NDP under McDonough.
Her stated bid to move the party toward the already overcrowded middle of the Canadian political spectrum threatens core labour support and spurred White, Hargrove and others to question the strategy.
``There's still some pain to endure before we put this thing behind us,'' Hargrove says.
``She (McDonough) and I have agreed to disagree.''
Under Georgetti's watch, the unionized membership of the B.C. federation more than doubled, from 218,000 to 460,000.
During that period, the rate of unionized workers among Canadians was declining.
``Our record here is we've been able to grow our membership and be fully involved in the economy and make it work,'' he says.
When he assumed the B.C. federation presidency, relations between organized labour and the provincial Social Credit governments were toxic.
That year, 87 work stoppages took more than 105,000 workers off the job for a total of 2.89 million days.
Last year (through Nov. 30), 32 work stoppages took 25,000 workers off the job for 270,000 days, more than 200,000 of them from a lengthy pulp mill strike.
The country's labour leaders say they are taking no risk in organizing a Georgetti coronation instead of trying to create a tight race, which would spur more debate and media attention.
And they say they don't need an Ontario candidate - Ontario is well-represented on the CLC executive - pointing to former three-term CLC chief Joe Morris who came from B.C.'s woodworkers' union and gained national fame during his fight against wage and price controls in the 1970s.
Georgetti grew up in Trail, B.C., and followed his father into the giant Cominco smelter.
He was raised on the same street - 22 doors away by Georgetti's meticulous count - as Tom D'Aquino, his arch-rival and spokesperson for the other end of the political spectrum, the Business Council on National Issues.
``The street we grew up on in Trail was known as The Gulch,'' he says.
``I'm from Upper Gulch. He's from Lower Gulch.''
He's a divorced father of three, a one-time romantic partner of B.C. Finance Minister Joy MacPhail and a man with a reputation for what he calls ``intelligent militance.''
Two of his children are in college, 21-year-old David in Trail and 19-year-old Lisa in Vancouver. Sarah, 16, lives with her mother in Trail.
At home, Georgetti's proximity to Clark and his history with a fellow one-time labour leader earned him the nickname ``the 19th cabinet minister.''
Georgetti says that tag is ``good spin'' but says he's talked to Clark three times in the past year, twice at public meetings.
``You've got to wear it,'' he said. ``I use it if something positive happens and somebody says it must have been Ken talking to Glen. Then, I don't deny it.
``But I also have to take the blame for all the bad decisions Glen has made because people think I've had input.''
Clark is being blamed for the recession that has hit British Columbia. On the West Coast, boom has gone bust and people are now leaving what was for years the country's most desirable locale.
Clark has been at historical low levels of popularity for a B.C. premier.
But, Georgetti says, for all the gloom and right-wing attacks on his premier, the province still managed to create 50,000 jobs last year.
``The facts are different than the perception,'' he says.
``There is more of a story out here than what the right-wing press puts on their pages. There is no place in the media - print or broadcast - for a counter-view.''
While Georgetti and Clark go way back and his relations were good with Clark's predecessor, fellow New Democrat Mike Harcourt, Georgetti took the B.C. helm under Socred Premier Bill Vander Zalm, when dialogue between labour and the government in Victoria was non-existent.
Georgetti, who organized a province-wide general strike against Vander Zalm in 1987, said he decided the best route was to ``work around'' the Socred premier.
``We had to attract his attention through something less than an honest, open dialogue.
``That meant we had to popularize our position, get more militant in our approach.
``We went around him. I don't think we should have to do that with any government.
``I don't know of any government in Canada, right, left or centre, which could ignore with impunity the interests of business without getting the heck kicked out of them in the media. Yet, it seems okay for governments to do that with labour.''
Labour proved it could be militant years ago, he said, and labour shouldn't now have to waste its time testing its mettle.
``The problem with the Liberals,'' White says, ``is they think that just because we're members of the NDP we wake up in the morning and ask ourselves `what can the NDP do?' instead of `what can the labour movement do?'
``Quite frankly, I don't ask myself that first question. I find the Liberals a bit patronizing,'' he says.
``Conservative governments nationally and provincially had accepted us a labour movement. This group doesn't.''
``We are going to have to be more militant in our actions. As of now, the business community is convinced they have won the battle and we're just a little hindrance they have to get out of the way.
``The Chrétien-Martin team has just decided they are going to ignore the Canadian Labour Congress.''
Georgetti's alliance with Clark is already leading to predictions of a more vigorous national debate in which the B.C. premier's more classic style of social democracy will be favourably compared with the centrist, pragmatic style of McDonough and Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow.
``I'd take Glen Clark, too, if I could get him on the national stage,'' Hargrove says.
Clark, he says, has not bought into the job-cutting, wage-cutting agenda which former Ontario premier Bob Rae fell into and which McDonough now seems more comfortable with.
``Clark is one of the real democratic socialist leaders in this country. If the NDP is to survive, it is the Glen Clark model which will allow it to survive.''
White says he admires Clark for sticking to his roots in the face of attacks from the business community and the B.C. media.
``I think Georgetti understands well that the NDP in B.C. is a good example of a party which didn't forget its roots.''
As he prepares for his biggest challenge, Georgetti is typically trying to come down with one foot on each side.
``The way Alexa announced this shift and the words that she used were a surprise to people like Bob White, Buzz Hargrove and me,'' Georgetti says.
``The worst thing you can do in an organization made up of coalitions is to surprise them.''
He agrees McDonough is trying to stake out political turf that has no more room and he doesn't believe small business would support the party.
``After listening to their rhetoric, it's hard to understand how we could attract their members. They haven't exhibited a very balanced view of organized labour or the NDP.''
But he also has a message for those who would take the loud, blunt Hargrove style in dealing with party matters.
``The attention Hargrove attracts in the national media has made the party's internal debate seem larger than it really is,'' Georgetti says.
``I don't hear any other union leaders crying and carrying on over what Alexa said.''
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