VANCOUVER—Delegates at this week’s CUPE BC political action conference enjoyed a rare glimpse into the lives of politicians, with a panel discussion featuring four elected officials from the labour movement sharing their insight on what it means to run for public office.
Former long-serving CUPE BC secretary-treasurer Colleen Jordan, now in her second term and seeking re-election in November as a councilor for the City of Burnaby, recalled her surprise at being elected on her first attempt in 2002. Jordan ended up doing double duty for her first term, learning the ropes as a city councilor while rounding out a lengthy career as CUPE BC’s chief financial officer.
“It was a hectic couple of years, and a very, very steep learning curve,” said Jordan. “But what I learned in the union has given me a lot of insight. The skills you pick up as union activists are applicable to what you do when you run for office and serve the public.”
Running off a lengthy list of agenda items for her typical week on city council—dealing with issues ranging from libraries, casinos, and pesticides, to parking spaces, water quality, waste management, and community policing—Jordan reassured delegates that one doesn’t need to be an expert to make sensible decisions on a variety of issues. Expert advice is available.
“When you take a shop steward’s training course,” she said, “what’s the first thing they teach you? How to listen. At CUPE, you can take public speaking courses. One thing I’m told is that I’m good at running meetings. Where did I learn that? From the union. Also, as union activists we have to bargain on all kinds of issues. When you’re on council, you’re negotiating all the time.”
Raymond Koehler, who was elected to Castlegar city council in a narrow by-election win on April 5, recalled how he overcame stereotypes to win a seat on council.
“I’m often asked, ‘How did a person like you—meaning a gay guy from the West End of Vancouver—get elected in a place like Castlegar?’” he said. “I was told when I went to the Kootenays that they’re a little right wing but supportive of diversity.”
Koehler, who won the by-election by less than 40 votes, said he had to scramble to get enough cash and credit to beat his nearest opponent, a wealth management consultant. Along the way he sought and received endorsements and contributions from various unions, including the BC Teachers’ Federation, BCGEU and HEU, as well as CUPE.
In the final week of a campaign, Koehler said, it’s important to find ways to reach every member in one’s local to remind them of the advance polls. And be open to support—wherever you find it.
“I often take special needs folks to the church of their choice. I visit every church in the community, and people appreciate that you’re there.”
Kathy Corrigan, a nine-year school trustee for the City of Burnaby who works for CUPE as coordinator of the union’s P3-fighting campaign in B.C., is seeking the NDP nomination for the new riding of Burnaby-Deer Lake in the next provincial election. She spoke about why it’s important for CUPE members to get involved with politics.
“We know CUPE involvement can make a difference,” she said. “In 2005 it did. We actually made a difference between some NDP candidates getting elected or not, in some close ridings.”
Corrigan, whose husband Derek is the mayor of Burnaby, said the process of seeking labour’s endorsement is important for any CUPE candidate because it involves a commitment to principles. She also spoke of the desperate need for progressive voices at all levels of government.
“There’s a growing inequality in Canada,” she said. “Workers and middle class are seeing their wages stagnate. It’s a bit concerning that some of our new young members don’t fully understand the history and importance of the protections built by the labour movement. They’re a bit more laissez faire and accepting, and have grown up since the Liberals have been in government. We need to tell them that it wasn’t always this good for workers, and it won’t always be there if we don’t fight for it.”
Harry Bains, the NDP MLA for Surrey-Newton, is a long-time trade unionist who entered politics from the ranks of the IWA.
“Why should union members get involved in politics? I think it’s just as important as having your meal every day,” he said. “What kind of economic and social life you live is determined by politicians. Any activity that you do, politics is involved in decisions behind it. What speed you drive, what gas prices you pay, what food you eat.”
Bains reminded delegates that union members are the ones who set the standard for all other working people in B.C.
“You need tools, the right to organize. Many of you take it for granted that becoming a union member is your right. But somebody negotiated that,” he said.
“So you have to make sure you have politicians in Victoria and Ottawa that are sympathetic to your needs and maintain public services. Rights were gained through hard work by people who came before us, so it’s up to us to maintain and improve those rights.”
Bains noted that people earning less than $60,000 a year have seen their earnings go down by four per cent since 2003. During the same period, the rich have seen their earnings go up by 20 per cent. It’s no coincidence, given which parties are in power in Victoria and Ottawa.
“They know how to get that money from your pocket and give it to those who help their election campaigns,” said Bains.
The panelists took several questions from the floor. One delegate asked panel members how they deal with a decision that might be unfavourable to the people who elected them.
“You have to create a culture of respect,” said Corrigan. “You may at times be a little bit apart, but if there’s a culture of respect there will be an understanding of your reasons.”
Jordan reassured delegates by demystifying the aura of the big-shot politician.
“Sometimes we’re nervous about putting ourselves forward—you know, we’re just normal folks so we think we don’t have the skills—but in fact, we do have the ability,” she said.
“So I encourage you to take advantage of what you learn here and seriously consider running for office in your community.”