COMOX—The school gymnasium at Highland Senior Secondary School was filled to the bleachers on Monday for CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill’s address on the importance of local investment policies that strengthen communities.
Nearly 350 K-12 support staff workers were in attendance to hear O’Neill’s speech, “Investing in Local Economies,” which touched on themes the CUPE BC president developed during a provincial tour in 2008-09. O’Neill’s address was the keynote speech for this year’s professional development day for CUPE 439 (School District 71) support staff workers—similarly themed “Investing in Your Community.”
During his previous visit to the Comox Valley, O’Neill spoke about the ways in which public-private partnerships and trade agreements inhibit the ability of local governments to strengthen the economy in their communities. In Monday’s speech, O’Neill expanded on some of the alternatives that can empower local governments and citizens alike.
“We’ve decided to spend ten percent of our budget on local food stores,” he said, describing his own household’s approach. “We can actually make things happen in our community by buying local.”
O’Neill drew applause when he called attention to the over-abundance of foreign-made goods in Canadian airports selling Olympic merchandise.
“Try and find one single thing—one pencil, one toque, one set of mitts, one book, one top, one track suit—try to find one thing in that store that’s made on our continent,” he said. “You won’t find a single, solitary thing. Not one. The mitts are made in China.”
O’Neill ended his speech with a brief overview of three concepts that can change a community’s approach to consumer spending.
Local economic multipliers, he said, can be defined as “something you do that generates a whole lot more money in your community than it would otherwise.”
One of his favourite examples, he said, is the difference between spending $100 on books at a large chain bookstore and spending at locally owned, independent bookstores.
“If you spend that same hundred dollars in two local bookstores, you generate about 92 dollars in your region as a multiplier,” he said. “If you spend the money in a large multinational, that money leaves the community faster.”
To understand the importance of leakage analysis, said O’Neill, “just consider a bucket of money with a whole bunch of holes in it. The idea is to figure out how to stop the money from leaking out of that bucket so that more of the money stays in the community.”
Import substitution, he added, simply refers to the practice of developing markets for food and merchandise that is produced locally so that there is less reliance on foreign goods.
“I think we’ve got the know-all to put together an organization that makes mitts or pencils,” he said, referring mockingly to the Olympic stores. “You figure we could make some pencils in B.C. with pine beetle wood? None of this stuff is difficult—you do not have to be an economist to make it happen.”
O’Neill encouraged CUPE members to get involved for the sake of their children and grandchildren.
“If we do nothing, we’re guaranteed that nothing’s going to change. It doesn’t mean we’re going to win if we do something—but we’re guaranteed to lose if we don’t try.”
In the spirit of the occasion, CUPE 439 presented a “bag lunch” in recyclable thermal zipper bags bearing the union logo. The day’s lunch was comprised entirely of local products, including bison and organic chicken salad sandwiches, cheese, salad, and desserts.
Workshops at CUPE 439’s PD day included a slide show on homelessness that gave a face to the local homeless in the Comox Valley by providing first-person narratives about their lives; a slide show history of the local K’omoks First Nation; a seminar on safe workplaces, and a screening of “Philosopher Kings,” an acclaimed documentary about janitorial staff at educational institutions, and their struggle for recognition and acceptance.