Political action conference inspires activists, renews energy to ‘get out the vote’
VANCOUVER—CUPE BC’s first political action conference in three years has lit a fire under CUPE activists, renewing confidence in the union’s campaign organizing potential—and its talent pool—as the fall civic election period approaches.
With 112 local delegates attending from throughout B.C., the conference (June 9-11) was sold out and every workshop filled to capacity. Monday’s opening night plenary featuring guest speaker Dave Barrett drew a crowd of 175, including guests from other unions as well as civic, provincial and federal politicians. The hallways at the downtown Coast hotel were constantly buzzing as old friends met, new networks formed and a number of delegates considered launching their own election campaigns as candidates.
“This conference reminds us that we do have the ability to make positive change,” CUPE BC secretary-treasurer Mark Hancock said in his closing remarks on Wednesday.
“Civic politicians and MLAs know what our members can do and that we’re out there to make a difference.”
Hancock, along with CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill, the guest speakers and panelists, reminded delegates that it’s not enough to simply elect progressive politicians—we also have to hold them to account once they’re in office.
Between the opening and closing plenary sessions, the conference featured a panel discussion with elected officials, a presentation on the implications of Bill 7, and a luncheon with BC NDP leader Carole James followed by a Q&A session with various NDP MLAs. For the workshops, each delegate attended three of the six available: campaign management and regulations, communications and messaging, government and party structures, lobbying politicians, capacity building and campaign workers’ rights and E-day skills.
Speakers inspire activists
Barrett, the former NDP leader and B.C. premier, got the conference off to a rousing start with a passionate speech about the importance of the union’s political action work during neoconservative regimes.
“We have the best tradition of trade unions in this province,” he said, praising CUPE BC for its recent provincial tour promoting local investment and alternatives to public-private partnerships. “It’s good that your union is talking with people, because it’s a bloody disgrace what’s going on out there.”
Barrett said that political action efforts are all the more important given the BC Liberals’ abandonment of single mothers, the elderly, and young people who end up on the streets.
O’Neill, touching on some of the themes of the provincial tour, said that CUPE members need to take political action to create positive change at every level of government.
“The Conservatives show absolute disdain for the people who built this country,” he said, “So we will do everything in our power to make sure that Stephen Harper is not re-elected.” Campbell, he added, has shown disdain and arrogance by taking away democratic gains with legislation such as Bills 42 (the election gag law), 32 (which enacts the TILMA) and 7 (which covers municipal election campaigns). And municipal politicians everywhere need to be held accountable—especially those who supported P3 developments in their communities.
“It reminds me of an old ad that says, ‘Isn’t it a great feeling when they stop kicking you in the head?’” said O’Neill. “That’s why nothing is more important than the [election] challenges we face in the coming months.”
NDP steps up to plate
BC NDP leader Carole James, addressing a CUPE BC political action conference for the first time, used her lunch hour address on Wednesday to remind delegates of the strong desire for change in the way politics is conducted (noting Barack Obama’s success in the recent U.S. Democratic primaries) and to make a few pledges of her own.
“One of my first acts in government as premier will be to increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour,” James said, to wild applause. She also promised to put in place a strategy to eliminate child poverty in B.C. and said an NDP government would stand up for forest communities hit hard by recent job losses and defend the rights of seniors and the middle class.
James, who had to leave early to attend a press conference in response to Harper’s official apology for residential schools, surprised her MLAs by calling them up to the stage to take questions from delegates. The MLAs performed well in their leader’s absence, with David Chudnovsky, Adrian Dix, Jenny Kwan and Raj Chouhan, among others, providing thoughtful answers to questions about the party’s commitment to children and families, early childhood education, and pay equity.
“This should be a vote determining issue: how we treat children in our society,” said Dix.