IN JANUARY 2006, EMPLOYEES WORKING at GM Place arena—home of the Vancouver Canucks—decided it was time to pull the trigger on the biggest trade of their career. More than a little frustrated with their union at the time, Unite Here Local 40, they turned to CLAC Local 501 for help.
Employees at the arena, renamed Rogers Arena in 2010, had been “represented” by Unite Here for nearly 12 years following a voluntary recognition agreement with their employer, Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment (now Canucks Sports & Entertainment). The fight to switch to CLAC was not an easy one, but the employees were determined. The entire Local 40 stewards committee at GM Place approached CLAC representatives, resolute in their desire to change unions.
Leading the charge was Earl Preece, a veteran worker at the arena and key organizer of the campaign to switch to CLAC. He and his fellow stewards were instrumental in the successful vote a few months later.
On November 7, 2017, after more than 20 years of service to his fellow members at the arena, Earl passed away peacefully. But his legacy of building a better workplace, of bringing better union representation to his coworkers, lives on in the hearts and lives of those he mentored and inspired.
EARL WAS EMPLOYED AS A host by Canucks Sports & Entertainment at Rogers Arena. He had retired after 21 years of employment with Canada Post and worked at the arena part time to supplement his retirement income. He first decided he wanted to work at the arena when he saw the giant puck drop that marked the footprint of the new arena, which broke ground on July 13, 1993. Earl called his new job his “hobby” because “it never seems like work. When it becomes a job, I’ll retire.”
While he loved his job, he had no love for the union that came with it. After years of disappointing representation, he and his fellow stewards were determined to leave Unite Here and join CLAC. At the time, close to 500 workers were employed at GM Place, including hosts, housekeepers, security personnel, various event staff, and building operators (conversions staff, carpenters, electricians, and other trades).
The successful vote to join CLAC in the spring of 2006 was the capstone to a long and eventful organizing campaign. The organizing committee needed every ounce of determination as both Local 40 and the BC Federation of Labour threw out all the stops in an effort to keep their members.
Star organizers from Unite Here, an international union based in the US with over 265,000 members, were parachuted in from as far away as New York City. Even the BC Fed president at the time, Jim Sinclair, and retired NDP leader Joy MacPhail were enlisted to hang out in the employee lunchrooms to try to persuade disgruntled members to stick with Unite Here.
Individual employees were approached num- erous times at their homes in an attempt to persuade them to remain with Local 40. But the workers weren’t falling for it. Sudden attention doesn’t make up for years of neglect. They stayed focussed on the core issues of representation and accountability and were not distracted by the counter campaign, which relied heavily on fear tactics and mudslinging.
On May 25, 2006, CLAC Local 501 was certified by the British Columbia Labour Relations Board as the bargaining agent for employees at the arena. Attention now focussed on healing divisions and beginning the hard work of making much-needed improvements to their workplace and the collective agreement.
NEVER ONE TO SHY AWAY from tough battles, Earl represented his fellow members in every way possible. He was one of the first employees hired when the arena opened in 1995 and he was active on every bargaining committee from the first day. He served as an effective steward for over 20 years, first with Unite Here and then with CLAC.
His calm demeanour and voice of reason helped to build a positive working environment. Although he wasn’t one to raise his voice, he spoke up forcefully when needed.
Jamie Wade, a CLAC representative for members working at the arena, remembers one such instance in particular.
“In 2008, Earl and I were involved in a grievance meeting. It was a grievance that we had little chance of winning, but we felt we needed to push it out of principle and to try to change the way the employer was acting.
“Earl never raised his voice in the 10 years I knew him . . . except for this meeting.
“The employer’s argument was that they were not contravening the collective agreement. Although technically true, it was the spirit of the agreement that we felt was being broken. Earl slammed his fist on the table and piped up loudly: ‘But it’s wrong! Wrong! Wrong!’
“I was shocked. So was the employer. So was Earl! I think he felt badly because he laughed it off later. When the meeting ended, we withdrew the grievance, but the issue was resolved as the employer got the message—loud and clear!”
Along with being a steward and serving on the bargaining committee, Earl was also active on the Local 501 Board, serving as president of the local from 2008 to 2012 and vice-president until he retired in 2017. In numerous bargaining sessions over the years, Earl’s veteran presence—he had been a national vice-president of a different union in previous years—and the wisdom he shared were key to helping move negotiations forward.
EARL LOVED HIS JOB at Rogers Arena. To him, retirement did not mean showing up, smiling, and going home. He did show up, he did smile, he was an exemplary employee, and he helped CLAC become the union of choice for the workers at the arena—much to the chagrin of the rest of the BC labour movement.
He had a deep appreciation for CLAC and the work of the representatives. And he knew CLAC was the right choice for workers at the arena.
“Orca Bay workers were looking for change and were attracted to CLAC’s experience, hands-on approach, and strong representational model,” he said at the time employees decided they needed a new union to represent them. “We are excited about the switch to CLAC and the representation they will bring.”
Comparing how things changed when CLAC was certified in 2006, he commented, “The difference between the two unions is unbelievable. CLAC is professional and organized. They have the resources to deal with the problems that come up here.”
As a host at the arena, Earl had the privilege of meeting countless professional hockey players, rock stars, and media personalities. One of his highlights was meeting Queen Elizabeth in 2002 when she dropped the ceremonial puck at the start of a Vancouver Canucks versus San Jose Sharks game. Others included the World Junior Championships, the 2010 Olympics, the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, and meeting Michael Jordan. He’d been there for all of the concert events as well, including Elton John, Celine Dion, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Tina Turner, Cher, Madonna, Brooks and Dunne, Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond, to name just a few.
One of the funniest moments he experienced was from the first World Wrestling event at the arena.
“We had a semiriot after one of the wrestlers tore up a flag, and a few of the fans got carried away,” he recalled during an interview for the Guide in 2015. “That wasn’t the funny part. At the end of the event, several fans got into the ring, and security had to get them out. One of our security staff ended up having a go with one of the unruly fans. Those who witnessed the event felt it was the best match of the night!”
BUT MORE THAN THE PERKS of the job, Earl loved to serve his fellow members employed at the arena. And by the time he retired in 2017, there were a lot of them.
In 2015, Canucks Sports & Entertainment brought the hospitality end of the business in-house and added several new venues on- site. Over 1,000 new members joined Local 501, including culinary staff, bartenders, servers, suite attendants, and quick service/concession staff. The number of members had grown from under 500 back in 2006 to over 1,700—easily the single largest group of members represented by CLAC in BC.
While it was impossible for Earl to know them all, he made lasting impressions on many of them, especially those he worked closest with over the years. This is something that was abundantly evident in the tributes they paid to him following his death, such as by Cherie Jackson, a long-time steward who worked as a host at the arena for almost as long as Earl.
“We met each other at Rogers Arena and you were a fellow steward, mentor, father figure, and friend. I am proud of all we have accomplished over the years and know that all the stories we shared will be told for generations to come. You and your wife, Marlene, brought great joy to my life.”
Sadly, Marlene passed away just a few weeks before Earl. The two had been married for 56 years and are survived by two sons, daughters in law, several grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Dennis Watt, current Local 501 president, also worked with Earl early on, from the first event held at the arena back in 1995, a concert by homegrown recording artist Bryan Adams.
“Earl was an amazing person and a wonderful colleague. He was also quite the character. My favourite quote that he used to say was ‘If you see me talking to myself, don’t be alarmed; I’m getting expert advice!’ ”
Fellow steward Bill McWhinnie worked with Earl for 34 years going back to their days together at Canada Post.
“Earl was a wonderful man and a very good friend. He had a great sense of humour and was always smiling. He was truly larger than life and was a big man with a big heart. I miss him greatly.”
Albert DeSienna, a steward who worked with Earl for 20 years, remembered his wry sense of humour: “Managers have a right to manage . . . and we have a right to oppose!”
EARL WILL NOT ONLY BE missed and remembered by his fellow members for his selfless dedication to them, but also by the CLAC representatives he worked with at Rogers Arena. And not just because of the instrumental role he played in bringing the largest single group of employees to CLAC in BC. His passion to lead and to be an example to others stood as a shining example of everything that is good in the labour movement.
“In all sincerity, Earl Preece was the nicest guy I have ever met,” says Jamie. “He embodied a lot of what CLAC represents. He demonstrated every day that dignity and respect for workers is best achieved when working cooperatively and in partnership with the employer.
“All workers at Rogers Arena owe a debt of gratitude to the work he did. The CLAC Member Centre in Langley is deeply grateful for the hard work and dedication he showed over the years.
“To the ‘Duke of Earl,’ I say goodbye and thank you for your many years of wisdom and friendship—you were truly one of a kind. You will be missed by the thousands of members and the representatives who had the privilege of working beside you.”
Rogers Arena Fast Facts
- Owner – Canucks Sports & Entertainment (CSE)
- $160 million – Cost to build (all private money, no public funding)
- 18,910 – Capacity for hockey (19,000 for concerts, 19,700 for basketball)
- 27,000,000 – Number of visitors in first 20 years
- 3,000 – Number of events hosted in first 20 years
- July 13, 1993 – Official groundbreaking ceremony takes place
- September 19, 1995 – GM Place, as it was known then, opens with a sold-out Bryan Adams concert.
- July 6, 2010 – CSE announces that it has come to agreement with Rogers Communications on a 10-year deal for naming rights to the arena.
- May 25, 2006 – CLAC Local 501 is certified by the British Columbia Labour Relations Board as the bargaining agent for Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment, later renamed Canucks Sports & Entertainment.
- 450 – Approximate number of Local 501 members working at the arena at the time of certification
- 1,750 – Approximate number of Local 501 members currently working at the arena
With a capacity of over 19,700 for basketball, Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver is not small. But it is dwarfed by other arenas around the world, and is not the biggest in Canada.
The largest indoor arena in the world is the Philippine Arena in the Philippines, with a seating capacity of 55,000. Next is the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama City, Japan, which can seat 37,000 people, followed by the Sports Complex Olimpiyskiy in Moscow, with a capacity of 35,000.
Biggest arena in Canada? The Bell Centre in Montreal seats 22,114 rabid fans. Unfortunately, they had little to cheer about this year as their beloved Canadiens missed the playoffs.