Crumbling municipal infrastructure and services had been worrying Kirk Oates for a long time. So when the Edmonton municipal worker heard about the New Deal for Cities and Communities – the federal government’s program to transfer money to municipalities for infrastructure renewal – he was inspired to run for municipal office.
“The New Deal is the reason I ran for office,” says Oates, a member of CUPE 30 for more than 20 years. “At the  meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), I believed the politicians when they said that money was coming for municipalities.”
For Oates, CUPE’s Rebuilding Strong Communities campaign is more than a slogan; it was a call to civic action. In October 2004, he ran for a town council seat in nearby Bon Accord – and won.
A year later, the New Deal cheque still seems to be in the mail, and Councillor Oates has gained insight into the pressures municipalities face.
“I see a city worker on the street and see what tools they have in their hand,” he says. “And when I’m sitting at council table, I think about how to get them the tools.”
Bon Accord is a bedroom community of about 1,600 people north of Edmonton. It’s facing growing pains, with councillors juggling the high cost of infrastructure needs with insufficient funds.
The New Deal is supposed to eventually pump billions of dollars back into municipal coffers through things like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) rebate for cities and gas tax transfers (see sidebar). For cash-strapped cities and towns across the country, the money can’t come a minute too soon.
“In Edmonton, parks maintenance has been cut back,” Oates says. “The roads are not to the same standard as 20 years ago.”
David Gould, president of Saint John, N.B.’s outside municipal workers at CUPE 18, also feels the pressure municipalities are under. His city council just made its first permanent hire since 1968. “The city is holding up but, same as other cities, we’re looking for the funding,” he says.
Bill Guthrie is vice-president of CUPE 416, Toronto’s outside workers. Guthrie has been a Toronto municipal worker for over 30 years, and he says he’s never seen the roads so bad.
In Montreal, the sorry state of the city’s nearly 50-year-old system of freeways has become a running joke. Twice this summer, passing thunderstorms severely flooded sections of the main highways in and out of the city.
These cities, and dozens like them, want relief – and they want it now. But they also know that money alone isn’t the solution.
City lights, city fights
“The New Deal is not just about funding cities properly,” Toronto Mayor David Miller recently told CUPE members. “It’s a fight about Canada, about people, about public servants.”
Miller was speaking at a gathering of CUPE municipal locals in Toronto. (This groundbreaking, town-hall style meeting was just the start of a concerted push for a more connected and coordinated municipal sector within the union.)
Miller acknowledges that lifting the GST and getting a share of the gas tax are big wins for cities. “But,” he cautioned, “neither is the endpoint of the New Deal. There is much more to do.” Miller’s wish list includes housing, transit, child care, support for immigrants and environmental initiatives.
Before they can start tackling that list, Miller says cities have to gain more power. “Although cities are much more important today than ever before, that reality is not recognized in Canada’s constitution,” he told delegates. “The forced amalgamation [Toronto] lived through showed that, by law, cities only exist by provincial will. They are creatures of the provinces. So we want new powers.”
To build a stronger community, you also need respect. “It’s about city governments being partners with federal and provincial governments,” Miller said. “Toronto has the second-largest child care system in the country after Quebec. But when there are talks about a national child care plan, we aren’t at the table.”
James Knight is chief executive officer of FCM. He also thinks there should be more dialogue between the different levels of government, and he’s pleased that the New Deal appears to recognize this.
“It’s important to stress that [the New Deal] is about relationships,” he says. “And while the financial relationships are really important, our current focus is more on the intergovernmental side.”
Oates says he’s glad that governments are talking. “But we need to continue the commitment,” he says, referring to one concern about the New Deal: it only sets out funding for five years.
The FCM has pegged the overall municipal infrastructure deficit at over $60 billion. Knight agrees that the fiveyear span of the New Deal could have been extended, but he has no doubt it’s a long-term program.
“They could have done a 10-year or a 15-year program, and probably should have, so municipal governments can plan with certainty,” he says. “But I think it would be politically very difficult to reverse it after five years. It would be very destructive of the progress we’re achieving if this program fell off the table.”
Guthrie doesn’t believe the New Deal will instantly fix every problem. “But eventually, over the coming few years, it will be a good deal for Toronto,” he says. “It has a better chance of working as long as public accountability is built in and councillors are the ones making the decisions.”
Guthrie has cause for concern. Some Toronto councillors have recently proposed that the city strike an executive committee that would make key budget decisions away from the scrutiny of the whole city council. This anti-democratic drift is being actively opposed by a broadbased community coalition, including Toronto municipal workers.
“The biggest problem is if there are strings attached on how the city is going to be governed,” says Guthrie. “It’s in our interest to be an open city and not have a small committee running things.”
Ann Dembinski, president of CUPE 79 representing Toronto’s 18,000 inside workers, agrees. She supports Miller’s lobbying for an improved New Deal and a better relationship with the province.
“Toronto needs more control over how money is spent,” she says. “Our members have seen the impact of downloading and cutbacks, and how services have suffered. It’s time to rebuild them.”
Strong communities for future generations
When public services are neglected or privatized, the whole community loses – starting with youth. In St. John’s, Nfld., Greg Baker sees young people leaving the province to work in Alberta’s lucrative oil patch. Contracted-out city work only pays $6 or $7 an hour, compared to the unionized $18 wage.
“The cost of living here is very high,” says Baker, president of St. John’s outside workers, CUPE 569. “[Kids] are not going to hang around here and struggle to make ends meet, living at home with their parents until they’re almost 30.”
Baker’s local is exposing the problems with contracting out and privatization at every turn. Their strategy also includes a push for a fair wage policy.
“Any contractor that bids on union work should have to pay at least 80 per cent of union wages,” he says. “That way, everybody’s on the same playing field. It should be the law right across this country.”
Baker says the St. John’s mayor and council have to move now to protect the city’s future. “If they’re not willing to invest in young people in this city, then this community is a dead community. Ten or 15 years down the road, there will be a bunch of senior citizens out plowing the streets. We need to get young people back and keep them here to revitalize our workforce and our union.”
On the other side of the country, protecting public sector jobs for the next generation was at the heart of a hard-fought lockout in Nelson, B.C., in the summer of 2004. The lockout was forced over CUPE 339’s refusal to give up a clause that protected 55 public city services from being contracted out.
“If we lost [that clause], it would have just paved the way for privatization,” local president Bev LaPointe says. “The city promised to secure our jobs, but once we retired, there would have been nothing. No more public services. No more union jobs for the young people in line.”
Beating back the P3 Goliath
As a member of CUPE 30, Oates has been fighting privatization schemes in Edmonton for years. Like his sisters and brothers across Canada, he knows that one of the keys to rebuilding strong communities is keeping the privateers out of public municipal services.
There is a growing mountain of evidence that privatization not only hurts public workers – it usually ends up costing taxpayers more money for diminished services. In addition, privatization in the era of powerful international trade and investment rules is doubly dangerous. Such rules make it harder for services to come back under public control once they have been privatized.
Despite these and other warning bells, the federal government makes no secret of its pro-P3 orientation. Neither do many provincial and municipal governments. Infrastructure Canada, the federal department that coordinates programs like the New Deal and makes “strategic investments” in infrastructure, is pushing the P3 model. In Quebec, Liberal Premier Jean Charest established the Public- Private Partnership Agency, which advises the provincial government on privatization issues.
While he won’t condemn privatization outright, the FCM’s Knight strongly believes in the advantages of keeping municipal services public.
“The reality is that public services in Canada at the municipal level are pretty efficient,” he says. “Broadly speaking, we do public services rather effectively and certainly with great reliability. And that presents some challenges to the private sector, in terms of being competitive.”
Besides, Knight adds, keeping services public is good for the bottom line. “Municipal governments can borrow at a lower rate than the private sector because they are totally solid credit risks,” he notes. “They’re not mandated to be profitable.”
However, with the blue-sky scenarios painted by privatization’s profit-oriented supporters, it’s perhaps not surprising that many city leaders and ordinary citizens have come to believe that there is no alternative. This makes the influence CUPE members have – whether as elected officials or as local lobbyists – even more vital.
At the recent gathering of CUPE municipal locals in Toronto, members from across the country shared information, strategies and success stories. One point that many participants kept emphasizing was the importance of forging alliances and building a broad base of support, from residents to sympathetic councillors.
“We won because the population was on our side,” said CUPE 1983 president Claude Benoît of his local’s winning fight against a transit P3 in Montreal. “We distributed 100,000 leaflets explaining the risks of P3s for the whole community, and we found many, many allies. We made it clear that keeping it public benefits everyone.”
“It’s hard to break in when you work alone,” says anti-racism activist Tam Goossen, who took part in the town hall. “We all feel powerless as individuals, but we’re not alone in the fight.”
The Toronto Environmental Alliance’s Shelley Petrie has seen the results strong partnerships can achieve. “When we work together, we’re no longer just running reactionary campaigns,” she told participants. “We can also be agenda-setters. The campaign for pesticide-free parks in Toronto is just one example. We couldn’t have done it without the workers. We’ve had many wins hand in hand with labour.”
Another good approach is to build awareness of city workers’ contributions to their communities outside of crisis situations. Many members all over Canada already participate in their local charities, churches, sports and cultural events. These activities also provide opportunities to remind people that if they can enjoy attractive parks, tidy streets and safe facilities, they can usually thank a municipal worker.
“People don’t live in Regina for the weather,” jokes Tim Anderson, president of that city’s outside workers, CUPE 21. “They’re here for the quality of life, and good municipal services are part of that.”
Time after time, Regina’s municipal services get top marks in resident surveys. “For example, we look after the recreation side of life,” he says. “When you get home from work, there’s always somewhere you can go to get away. There are affordable sporting programs for kids. That’s a really important comfort zone.”
Mayor Miller is on the same wavelength. “Workers are all about building a great city,” he told members. “It’s not just a job. [They’re] doing it for the families that live in our cities. And [they] are among those same families.”
Rocking the vote
At CUPE’s town hall, another message came through loud and clear: concerned members have a responsibility to use their influence to affect the outcomes of municipal elections.
“It’s not going to be by accident that we take over our cities,” the Canadian Labour Congress’ Mike MacIsaac told delegates. “It’s going to be by planned, strategic votes.”
Talk to just about any CUPE municipal worker, and they’re planning to work harder – and smarter – in their next municipal election.
Ken Davidson, a Vancouver outside worker and president of CUPE 1004, says the local labour council played a big part in electing a progressive mayor and socially conscious councillors in the city’s 2002 elections. The council helped coordinate, support and train activists.
In Nelson, B.C., CUPE 339’s president says her members know what’s expected of them in this fall’s municipal elections. “We have to elect councillors who don’t buy into the lie that private is better,” LaPointe states. “Then we stand a fighting chance.”
“Keeping on top of city hall in between elections is as important as getting involved in elections,” says Davidson. “We really have to pay close attention to who we get elected and how we hold them accountable. It can’t just be action and contact every three years. It has to be every day.”
LaPointe and Davidson, like municipal workers across the country, realize the stakes have never been higher.
“Municipal services are the heartbeat of the community,” LaPointe says. “They weave the social fabric. The taxes I pay go right into workers’ wages, and they spend that money in town. You have a say, it’s transparent and you can see what’s going on. That’s local economy. That’s local democracy.”