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BURNABY—In the wake of its highly successful conference in Vancouver last month, CUPE BC’s political action committee (PAC) is stepping up its efforts to help ensure that progressive candidates put their names forward, run effective campaigns and get elected as municipal councillors and school trustees in civic elections this fall.

As major stakeholders with members in the municipal and K-12 sectors, CUPE activists typically play a leading role in campaigns for civic council and school board elections, says committee chair Carlene Keddie.

“We can effect change, because we have enough members—along with their households, their friends and their families,” explains Keddie, a CUPE BC general vice president. “As a collective, we have the ability to elect progressive councillors. If we stay coordinated and stay on our game, we can make a difference for our communities.”

The union was on its game in the 2005 provincial election, when activist efforts helped elect New Democrats in several constituencies that might have gone Liberal. Within the following eight months, similar activist campaigns helped elect progressive councillors and trustees in the municipal elections and boosted the NDP’s B.C. caucus in the federal election.

“We couldn’t have done this without having that network of zone coordinators—the CUPE activists who take the time to volunteer to make phone calls, stuff envelopes, make poll cards, et cetera,” says Keddie. “Other members spent hours of their own time working with potential candidates—talking to them, finding out where they stand on issues important to us.”

Holding candidates accountable

Each candidate in the local elections is asked to complete a profile of his or her position on P3s, contracting out, pay equity, and other important issues. If the candidates don’t know where they stand, says Keddie, CUPE has lots of information to help them.

“We tell them, for example, why child care facilities on school properties should be run by CUPE members, and why it’s good to have the connection between school and care. We tell them why it’s not a good idea to have 35-year contracts with foreign for-profit companies, and why the public sector owning and operating public facilities has been more successful.”

An interview with PAC co-chair Marcel Marsolais quickly dispels a popular myth held by the anti-union right.

“There is no signed contract with labour,” he says. “We seek answers to questions from candidates to find out who will be responsible to our communities. The biggest question, and it’s always asked, is accountability. We tell the candidates, ‘We want to meet you during your term, both to assist you and to bring you our concern that public services are protected. We don’t just want to see you before the next election when you’re seeking our endorsement.’”

Four elections ago, Marsolais stood up at a district council meeting and shot down endorsements of four incumbent school trustees who, during the previous term, had done nothing to stop services and jobs from being contracted out.

“We had endorsed them before the last election, but after that meeting two of the four did not receive re-endorsements,” he recalls.

The biggest challenge activists will have this fall is getting the vote out. With several collective agreements lasting five years, there is less of a push to ‘elect our bosses’.

“But if we don’t get the vote out,” warns PAC member Karen Dixon, “we could end up with a lot of councils and school boards that aren’t so progressive.”

Keeping our eyes and ears open

This means paying attention to what’s going on in your community, and keeping fellow members informed. PAC and CUPE 608 member Gerrie-Lynn Ward, a receptionist at Penticton city hall, is in a good position to monitor what’s going on in the city.

“I attend all the council meetings, twice a month, and I read the paper to see what the city is doing with different developments,” she says. “Word of mouth and talking with the membership is the best way to get the message out, but members don’t necessarily like talking politics, so it can be a challenge.”

Ward says the key is to keep it simple: when you’re talking about civic politics, focus on how municipal government and local school board decisions affect people’s lives.

“Following up from Barry O’Neill’s tour [the CUPE BC president, in visits to communities throughout B.C. earlier this year, held public meetings about investing in local economies], I also think that part of the message is telling our members why it’s important to support candidates who support our local small business people, as opposed to the big boxes, and support union shops.”

At the centre of the action

Dixon, a CUPE 23 member for 27 years now, has sat on the PAC for the past four. She first got the political action bug as a zone coordinator.

“It was fabulous,” she recalls. “Marcel and I got to talk to people from all over the province. We found that once we reach the members on the phone, they’ve been expecting us to call them and are glad we do.”

Dixon and Marsolais agree that political action, apart from being important work for the union, is a highly social activity and a great way to make friends.

“We ran the last three phone banks here. It was fun—a lot of pizza,” Marsolais laughs.

Dixon recalls volunteering at a tea and cake event for MP Bill Siksay aimed at welcoming new citizens to Canada.

“This is great because you get to watch as they become part of the political process—often for the first time in their lives,” she says, “and you’re showing people—some who’ve come from Third World countries who risk getting shot for political action—that they can be in the same room with a politician, their voices will be heard, and they can make friends and form new alliances.”

And that’s the best part: the friendship and solidarity that comes from shared commitment to a good cause. Union events play a big role in forging that solidarity.

Ward, in her first term on the political action committee, describes CUPE BC’s recent political action conference as a “totally exhilarating” experience.

“It was wonderful to see so many union activists and so many involved in the upcoming municipal elections,” she says, adding that panel presentations by Castlegar councilor Raymond Koehler and Burnaby councilor (and former CUPE BC secretary-treasurer) Colleen Jordan were particularly inspiring.

“That was great what Raymond said, about how he got his name out, showed what he stands for and got involved with different groups,” Ward recalls. “And Colleen’s message, that what we learn as union activists can prepare us for political office, was just breathtaking.”

Ward adds that the camaraderie and support she felt at the CUPE BC event was also in abundance at the western municipal conference in Calgary.

“The number of people I met from B.C., and seeing people I knew from Alberta and Saskatchewan, really struck me. There was a real sense that we’re all in this together and we’re all on the same level.”

Volunteers needed

With only four months to go before the civic elections, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Keddie says she would like to see a zone coordinator covering every area of the province where CUPE members live and work. And did she mention the part about getting out the vote?

“Voting on that one Saturday in November is absolutely crucial to everything we do—whether you work for the school board or the city, whether your kids are students, whether you live in the community,” she says.

Doing the hard work of zone coordination in their communities will be activists like John Hall in Kamloops, and Marcel Marsolais in New Westminster and the Lower Mainland region—all of whom actively participate in their district labour councils.

But they will need lots of help, and other communities will need zone coordinators as well.

Marsolais, president of CUPE 409 (New Westminster schools – K-12), served, along with Dixon, as zone coordinator in the Lower Mainland for the last provincial, federal and community elections. The two also worked on other campaigns throughout the province from B.C. regional office.

During the last civic elections, the candidate selection process for the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley —a coordinated effort between the CLC, BC Fed, CUPE locals and New West District Labour Council—involved more than 80 interviews for council and school board. This year should be no less busy.

“Just about every night in September is booked for candidate interviews and selections this year,” smiles Marsolais.

Other members of the PAC are Jamie Arden (CUPE 498), Heather Elliott (CUPE 1048), Robert Gilchrist (CUPE 718), Jeff Lawson (CUPE 1622), Bruce Richardson (CUPE 561), Justin Schmid (CUPE 374), and Richard Vollo (CUPE 873). The new Kootenay District Council nominee to the committee is Ken Vaughan Evans. Staff advisors are CUPE representative Leann Dawson, Strong Communities Political Action coordinator Angela Mahlmann, and CUPE BC executive assistant Sharon Prescott.

For more information about how to get involved with the civic election, or to volunteer in your community, contact Angela Mahlmann at (604) 291-1940 or via e-mail, amahlmann@cupe.ca.