In the year and a half since the first COVID-19 lockdown, we’ve learned just how challenging and unpredictable pandemic times can be. For many of us, the ability to make ends meet, stay healthy, and heed Dr. Henry’s call to “be kind, be calm, and be safe” has required us to find inner reserves of strength we never knew we had. As spoken word artist Shayne Koyczan put it, during his moving performance to wrap up our 2021 convention: “The heaviest things you will ever have to lift are your own spirits…Remember those times you could have pressed ‘quit’, but you pressed ‘continue’ instead.”
Some of us have pressed ‘continue’ by stepping forward to assume new leadership roles. At CUPE BC’s 57th annual Convention — already one for the history books, as the first virtual convention our union has ever held, and during a global pandemic — two women were running for the position of president, something that’s never happened before. Now, for the first time in B.C. history, the five largest unions in the province are being led by women (see cover feature on pages 6–7.)
Facing the challenges
It is an honour to have been elected to serve as your president, and I accept the burden of leadership knowing CUPE’s long and proud tradition of leading B.C.’s labour movement. I accept it knowing the many victories we’ve won after much struggle and with an eagerness to take on the many challenges that lie ahead.
The governments we elect are a big part of those challenges. At the provincial level, we’ve had to work hard at establishing a good working relationship with the BCNDP. I have every confidence that this respectful consultation will continue as we advocate for our members moving forward. Meanwhile, there’s a federal election coming up, so we’ll need to work hard to elect Jagmeet Singh and the NDP to prevent a Conservative victory. Then, just over a year from now, we’ll have to work hard again to elect as many progressive councils and school boards as we can. And we’ll need your help to do that.
The threat of privatization is constant — and will only accelerate during the post-COVID recovery — and some employers during bargaining will try to use the pandemic to claim a need for austerity. The pandemic also revealed how much work still needs to be done tackling systemic racism and bigotry, so we need to make more of a difference there.
Encountering each other again
As successful as the virtual convention was (see pages 5 and 10), it also confirmed for me how important it is for working people to exchange ideas and build solidarity by gathering in person. After 18 months in quasi-isolation, it will be vital for CUPE BC to get out and connect with our locals directly. That’s why my first term as your president will be focused on connection.
Yes, we must embrace new technology that allows us to increase our social media reach — especially through webinars and masterclasses where members and their union can learn from each other. But we must also reach out at the community level and support our locals with more in-person contact. Meanwhile, we need to remove all remaining barriers to participation that can make our union seem less than inclusive.
One of the first things we can do in that regard is make the principles of Reconciliation, and of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, more intrinsic to CUPE culture. This means building an equity lens into everything we do. And it means working with Indigenous Diversity vice-presidents and the Indigenous Workers committee to build and deepen relationships with First Nations organizations so we can create meaningful solidarity and actions.
We also need to reimagine how we do political action. This means expanding CUPE member involvement with campaigns, encouraging more members to run as candidates, and emphasizing member-centred lobbying that’s aimed at holding governments — including friendly ones — to account. Finally, to build more solidarity in the B.C. labour movement, we need to link more of our struggles, support more of each other’s picket lines, and work together to strategize for both public sector bargaining and the fight against privatization.
The days and weeks ahead will be challenging, but I am excited to work with our provincial executive board and CUPE staff to defend our jobs, fight for public services and boost our members’ profile. I am especially excited to meet as many of you as possible in the next two years. There may be many challenges ahead, but I know this for sure: CUPE members will always stand together, always face employer challenges head on, and always last one day longer.
CUPE BC is the largest union in British Columbia, representing more than 100,000 workers delivering important public services in nearly every community in the province.