Here’s to public-private partnerships we can truly embrace

October 7, 2011 Commentary by Barry O’Neill

A few years ago, when I began touring the province to talk about strengthening local economies, some reporters asked why Big Labour was spending so much time hobnobbing with business people, chambers of commerce, and even BC Liberal MLAs. The implication seemed to be: “You’re natural enemies. What common ground could there possibly be?”

That thinking was misguided. Sure, I’m not exactly chummy with these folks when our members are being legislated back to work—or the local board of trade is endorsing Philip Hochstein’s view of the world. But regardless of what side of the political fence they’re on, Liberal MLAs and business operators are part of a local community, just like us. And, when it comes right down to it, we all want the same for our communities: good jobs, a healthy and safe environment for our kids, and a local economy that doesn’t depend on global capital for its very survival.

Efforts to support local development should never be guided by partisan loyalty. That’s why CUPE BC is proud to work with small- and medium-sized independent private businesses—just as we do with charities, church groups, community coalitions and other local organizations. We all want to make our communities better—regardless of our political biases, religious beliefs or even ethnic backgrounds.

Nor should our status as public or private sector workers be a factor. CUPE and the United Steelworkers—B.C.’s largest public and private sector unions—have done a lot of work together in recent years. When USW forestry workers were being laid off and their communities began to suffer economically, they relied more, not less, on the services that CUPE members provide. When our members are threatened with lockouts or lay-offs, Steel has our back—because they’ve been there. It’s a natural alliance.

But when it comes to those who seem more like natural adversaries, we need to think outside the box and emphasize what unites, rather than divides us. If you talk to your local, BC Liberal-voting mom & pop storefront owner, or board of trade representative, you may be surprised by how much agreement you’ll find, for example, on our opposition to trade deals like the TILMA and CETA, or our support for the Ten Percent Shift and other local investment initiatives.

Last year, I attended the official opening of the Seymour Water filtration plant. I didn’t get to speak, and there was no announcement of new CUPE jobs or anything like that. Really, there was nothing in it for us except the satisfaction of seeing a core public service defended and proven to be world-class. In the fight to keep this plant public, CUPE had stood beside small business owners and local activists alike, from secular private citizens to church groups.

The success of that campaign is a good reminder that—now more than ever—we need to break down barriers to keep our communities strong.

Barry O’Neill is president of CUPE BC

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