Former premier Bill Bennett strolls through Quail's Gate vineyard in West Kelowna in a campaign appearance with Gordon Campbell in 2009.

BC VIEWS: Passages of 2015 – Bill Bennett

Former premier took on out-of-control government growth, chokehold of international unions on public construction

The death of former B.C. premier Bill Bennett on Dec. 4 prompted the traditional round of polite tributes.

He was the man from Kelowna who remade Vancouver, with SkyTrain, BC Place stadium and Expo 86 to put the city on the world map. He won three majority governments before handing over the steering wheel of a smoothly running Social Credit Party to Bill Vander Zalm.

Outside B.C., the wire service obituaries ran to a few paragraphs, defining Bennett first as the “architect of financial restraint in the province.”

It seems an ordinary notion today, but when Bennett unleashed his “restraint program” on the B.C. government in 1983, it was presented as a right-wing coup on a socialist utopia.

I was in journalism school in Vancouver when unions organized a general strike and mass street demonstrations under the banner of Operation Solidarity, appropriated from the struggle against Poland’s communist dictators. Their goal was to bring the recently re-elected government to its knees.

The newly tabloid Vancouver Province, itself largely controlled by some of B.C.’s most militant unions, was a screeching banshee of the big-labour left.

“Socred hitmen swoop on rights workers,” its front page declared after 400 layoff notices were issued to provincial staff. This propaganda was the public’s guide and my professional role model.

A bit of background: the B.C. economy was in the grip of an international recession, hitting resource industries and government revenues hard.

Bennett had ousted the Dave Barrett NDP government in 1975, but the legacy lived on. During its three-year reign, for example, education spending increased 13 per cent in the first year and 23 per cent in each of the next two.

The blitz of restraint legislation reasserted government’s authority to control the size and wages of provincial staff, reinstated the principle of the province’s ability to pay, eliminated various boards, and increased the provincial sales tax to seven per cent to pay the bills.

Another Bill Bennett legacy was dismantling the monopoly chokehold of big international unions on public heavy construction.

Growing up in northeastern B.C., I had seen the impressive pay for jobs on highway construction, about twice what I earned labouring for a non-union contractor doing city work.

A couple of friends discovered the inside track to securing labouring jobs on a provincially-funded highway project. After joining the union, those in the know could visit a business agent and hand over $500 cash. Within days, the lucky winner would be “name requested” to join the crew, vaulting over those who thought paying dues and working their way up the seniority list would be enough.

This struggle over public construction continues today, with BC Hydro’s decision to make the Site C dam an open shop. The main contract was awarded to a consortium working with the Christian Labour Association of Canada, an alternative union known by more colourful names among old-line building trades.

After graduating from journalism school, I landed my first full-time job as a reporter for the Kelowna Capital News, shortly before Bennett announced his retirement from the premier’s office to finish his term as a backbench MLA.

Bennett and I would sometimes arrive for work together, parking our rusty 1976 Chevrolets on Bernard Avenue, where he kept an office above the family furniture store.

I found out later that Bennett’s modest old sedan was the government-issue car he had used during his entire 10 years as premier.

The party bought it for him as a humourous retirement gift, and he drove it home from Victoria and continued to drive it to work.

No frills. That was Bill Bennett.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc