VANCOUVER – Conference participants were on their feet more than once during the opening night of CUPE BC’s Champions for Public Education conference on Monday. About 250 CUPE members and staff from the K-12, university and college sectors have come together for two days to share information and participate in workshops.
CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill opened the conference and talked about the important links between CUPE’s more than 40,000 education workers and all CUPE members. O’Neill said that CUPE members are key advocates for quality education and for strong communities. Acknowledging the tough times facing education and the entire public sector, he said that solutions start in our communities, and are found when we make links with one another and support local and public services.
Continuing on his theme of connections, O’Neill talked about the lengthy strike of the ambulance paramedics, members of CUPE 873. “Their struggle is CUPE’s struggle and that of everyone who has had to call upon a paramedic for them or a loved one.”
The evening’s keynote speaker was distinguished UBC law professor Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, which was adapted into a highly successful film. Bakan, who is a member of two unions – the UBC faculty union and the musicians’ union – and who, along with his wife Rebecca Jenkins, has two children in public schools, said he was very pleased to be with a union audience and, in particular, with CUPE.
Describing CUPE as a fighter for public services and a defender of public education, Bakan talked about the follies of privatization. “Our very sense of citizenship is being diluted by privatization and creeping corporatization. And in the devastation of public services, there is much opportunity for the private sector,” said Bakan.
Bakan warned against American-style EMOs or education management organizations, which are now running public schools in the United States, similar to the infamous American HMOs or health management organizations. EMOs, says Bakan, are about making a profit, not caring for children or helping to develop strong citizens. He also talked about the newer concept of “industry-embedded schools” which are nominally public schools where the sole mandate is to train workers to work for the corporations who fund the school program.
While we have a fight on our hands, Bakan believes that it is one we can win largely because Canada still has strong public education, health care, and other services despite cutbacks. It is on that foundation that we must build and demand that our politicians deliver services that work for people and communities.
The evening ended with a packed reception in downtown Vancouver, where a few lucky CUPE members won copies of Bakan’s book.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, conference participants will work to flesh out strategies to protect public education and the work of CUPE members who support it.