Katrina Chen loves door knocking. At the doorstep of many Burnaby homes, the former UFCW member has been determined to find answers. “What’s the most pressing issue in your community?” Chen has often asked Burnaby residents. Their answers are many and varied: parks, street lighting, public education, community safety.
Chatting with her neighbours, Chen hears a common, if unrecognized theme: the importance of local government. It reminds her of why she first became involved in municipal politics, running for school board trustee in 2014 and winning. Chen is now MLA for Burnaby-Lougheed and the Minister of State for Child Care in the provincial NDP government. But her inspiration for public service remains the same: helping people make positive change in their communities. And nowhere is that more powerful and possible than in municipal government.
“At the doorstep, I’ve heard people talk about local politics without often realizing it,” Chen comments. “Local government is the closest to the people.” But there’s a disconnect, she adds. Although municipal government is the most accessible to constituents, with the possibility to make a real difference, people are not using it as a change maker.
“If you look at municipal government voter turnout, it tends to be low – way lower than provincial and federal elections. And yet they are the ones that can make a real difference in the community,” says Chen. Indeed, while the last provincial and federal elections saw a voter turnout in BC of about 60 percent and 70 percent respectively, in the municipal election, only about 40 percent of eligible British Columbian voters exercised their right to vote.
On October 20, BC voters will return to the polls to elect new municipal governments accross the province. So what is the role of unionized workers in this democratic moment? “Not only do we have the power of organized labour and strength in numbers to affect progressive change, we have an obligation. As union members, we are obliged to cast our vote and participate in the democratic process,” asserts President Ivan Limpright. “People don’t show up to vote these days because they’ve stopped believing their vote will make a difference. But when workers show solidarity, our votes do count. As UFCW 1518 members, we are 22,000 votes strong and as unionized workers, we are 500,000 votes stronger in BC. It’s a fact: the labour vote counts.”
CHANGE YOU CAN FEEL
Frank Farrell is a UFCW 1518 member who is a well-known figure in his hometown of Smithers, BC. It’s no wonder, after working for 20 years at his community’s Safeway and defending workers’ rights as a shop steward. As a school board trustee, he has also been a voice for families and students in his district for the last decade.
Farrell is running for his fourth term as trustee in the upcoming municipal election. His motivation is personal: “I have three kids – two are in kindergarten and my third one has special needs,” says Farrell. Through his position on the Bulkley Valley school board, Farrell has been making tangible change not only for his family, but for his community too. “My experience as a school trustee has been very personal in terms of engagement,” comments Farrell. “You’re constantly meeting local people with issues that are important to them.” And because of that, their issues become important to him too.
Local government is often considered a training ground for democracy. Political decision-making at the municipal level involves more direct participation than provincial or national policymaking and its effects are often immediate. From reporting a missing sign at an intersection to running for office, there is much opportunity for individuals to make a difference through municipal government. Farrell knows this well. After hearing from constituents, the Bulkley Valley School Board lobbied tirelessly for a new elementary school in the area. In 2020, the new school will open its door.
“School trustees deserve a lot of credit,” says Judy Darcy, NDP MLA for New Westminster and the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Many of them fought very hard with the previous government on issues relating to special needs kids in classrooms, ESL in classrooms and curriculum that teaches kids the true history of our country, especially around reconciliation. Trustees can make an enormous difference.”
While municipal decisions directly affect people and their communities, the importance of city governance goes beyond local matters. Cities have a key role to play in solving BC’s pressing issues, affirms Darcy. Affordable housing, for example, is a top priority for the provincial government, but partnership with cities is critical. “Municipalities have the ability to set rules for development and ensure there is affordable rental stock available, that there are enough childcare and community spaces available,” she says. “If municipal government wants to work with the province we can move faster, so that people can afford to live in the city and stop living on the streets.”
Local government can have a positive effect on people’s everyday lives, in ways both small and big: from fixing potholes to supporting transgender people through washroom signage. That’s why it is imperative that people vote in this October’s municipal election, says President Limpright. “There’s no other level of government where a vote will have more of an impact than at the local level,” he comments. “Municipal government affects our members on a day-to-day basis. The results of October’s elections will bring change all British Columbians will feel, for better or for worse. If union members vote, it will be for the better.”
A VOTE FOR LABOUR
When government is an ally to unions, the influence of the labour movement grows, and unions’ ability to fullfil their social justice mandate strengthens. Before being elected to provincial government, Judy Darcy was a face of the Canadian labour movement. As the former National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Secretary-Business Manager of the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU), she kept hitting walls with a Liberal government in power. That’s what finally motivated her to run for office. “It became clear to me at some point that government holds all the power,” recounts Darcy. “While working at HEU, we kept running into a BC Liberal government that had no respect for health care workers, that had been determined to privatize services and cut collective bargaining rights. I decided to step up in order to fight back.”
Now that Darcy and the NDP are in government, workers can feel the difference. The minimum wage has gone up twice and will continue to rise until it reaches $15.20 an hour in 2021. Medical Services Plan premiums have been eliminated and BC’s Labour Relations Code, currently skewed in favour of employers, is being reviewed. In another victory for labour, Premier John Horgan announced the community benefits agreement, a landmark accord for key public-sector infrastructure projects that will prioritize better wages, improved training and apprenticeships, and more trades opportunities for Indigenous people, women and youth across BC.
Because municipal governments wield such influence over people’s lives too, labour councils are paying close attention to the upcoming elections. They are carefully deciding which candidates to endorse and organizing workers to get out and vote this October. Many cities throughout the province are already bringing positive change to workers as living wage employers, including the City of Vancouver, the largest city in Canada to commit to paying its workers a living wage.
Rosanna Hussain has caught the local government bug. A HeadStart graduate and pharmacy technician at Save-On-Foods Central Fill facility, Hussain was hired by the Vancouver and District Labour Council to work as an election organizer. The focus of her role is canvassing, encouraging workers to vote, knocking doors and connecting with people online and in person. She’s excited to help make a difference for workers in the city where she was born. “To know that I’m taking part in this important process in this city is a very incredible feeling for me,” says Hussain. “It is important for our members and our union to be involved in lower levels of government because these candidates will affect us on issues such as education, housing affordability, recreation. It is important to encourage members to vote and I believe unions have the power to do that.”
Katrina Chen sees an obvious parallel between the work of unions and local government, as well as a natural alliance. “As union members we believe in working collectively. Municipal government does too,” she asserts. “At the municipal level you are working with your neighbours and your community to make the changes you want to see. As in the workplace, at the local level we can have a lot of influence.”
OUR DEMOCRATIC DUTY
Hussain is not the only politically active member keen to make a difference this October. Stefan Nielsen, a Safeway member and HeadStart graduate worked as a vote counter during the last provincial election. Since 2016, Nielsen has also been a UFCW 1518 delegate on the VDLC. As part of that work he sat on the labour council’s candidate endorsement committee, which assessed all Vancouver candidates from a labour and social justice perspective, and met with all mayoral candidates for that city.
After two days of democratic debate among delegates, the VDLC released its list of endorsed candidates last July. “Our choices were both strategic and what we felt would be best for the city in terms of policy, treating workers fairly and having progressive ideas about housing,” comments Nielsen. “Decisions that city governments make affect the lives of our members to an incredible degree. So it’s important we choose the right people.”
One significant change that will level the playing field between candidates in this year’s municipal election is the ban on corporate and union donations to political campaigns. It was one of the NDP’s election promises that they swiftly made into law after taking office last summer. Now that big money is out of local politics and the ability to curry favour through large campaign donations has been eliminated, politics can refocus on people. This is why labour endorsements will have an even greater impact on October 20. “If we can mobilize members to turn to the polls that’s enough to turn an election,” Nielsen says. “The population of a Save-On-Foods in a small town could swing an election. We have numbers and they mean something.”
Elections are indeed a numbers game. A strong collective labour vote is all that is needed to change the course of these elections. And unions have the responsibility to use this power wisely. Our duty to our members and the community this October is to cast a vote for fairness. You don’t need to call yourself an activist or political junkie to get informed and make your way to the ballot box. You only need to care. “All across the province there is a tremendous opportunity for change,” asserts President Limpright. “We have the power within our union to help make this change a change for the better.” In this exciting time for municipalities in BC, labour is positioned to lead the change. This October 20, it starts with you at a voting station.