By Lisa Descary
As a rank and file trade union member and a socialist, I am very focused on reforms that I think will make life better for other workers: things like inexpensive quality childcare, cheap (or free) public transit…and housing. Given that I live in Vancouver, the most unaffordable city in North America, I care about housing. A lot.
So when my local labour council endorsed candidates for the upcoming city elections, while I knew we wouldn’t agree on everything, I thought that we would at least agree that whomever they endorsed had to be pretty good on the affordable housing file. Or at least not lousy on it. Or at the very least not be part of the problem. Which is why I am disappointed to learn that the party with one of the worst records ever on housing, the party that has worked hand-in-glove with developers and allowed massive gentrification, demovictions and skyrocketing rents and house prices, got a prime spot on the list of endorsements. How did this happen?
On July 17, Vancouver and District Labour Council (VDLC) voted to endorse progressive candidates for the upcoming municipal elections. These endorsements were the result of meetings with the “left” parties in the city, and were meant to avoid splitting the left, by asking each party to run only a few candidates. This was meant to prevent the right-wing NPA from coming up the middle, and ensure that no single party would have majority control of city council.
On its surface, perhaps it seems like a reasonable proposal to have some sort of electoral agreement between left parties. But who are the “left” parties in Vancouver city elections? VDLC’s agreement was with four parties: the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), OneCity, Vision Vancouver and the Greens. While COPE have solid left credentials, and One City although only founded in 2014 and relatively unproven has a fairly left platform, the Greens pride themselves in being “neither left nor right” politically, so should they be included?
Vision Vancouver, I would argue, has never been on the left. Vision was created in 2005 by then Mayor Larry Campbell and other members of City Council who had been elected on the COPE slate. In reward for creating a right wing split from COPE, Campbell was awarded the position of Senator for the Liberals by then Prime Minister Paul Martin. Current Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, formally a factory owner, has led a party with the classic Liberal strategy: get your funding from business, put their needs first, and then pretend to care about the rest of us.
So, it’s not an accident that the Vision-dominated city council has presided over a shocking increase in rental prices, as homes in Vancouver become a speculator’s playground. Vision has stated many times that they see the solution to Vancouver’s housing crisis as an issue of supply: to solve it, we just need to increase the number of rental units. But we know that the market can’t solve the housing crisis; developers are loathe to build even semi-affordable housing, preferring instead to build lucrative luxury condos that often just sit empty as they end up being bought and flipped as investments. Recently Vision councilors voted in favour of “affordable” rental housing that requires an income of $150,000 to afford. A better solution would be to implement COPE’s plan of taxing the wealthy to build truly affordable public housing.
Vision has been pretty open about their friendly relationship with developers; in the last election in 2014, they received $1.4 million in corporate donations, with businesses such as Amacon, Polygon and Wesgroup, and just about every big Vancouver developer on their donors list. On top of all that, this election will be about who will replace Vision. They have presided over increases in rental prices of over 40% and a rise in detached home prices of over 125%. The labour movement should be fighting to convince its members, and the rest of the working class, that we should replace a bosses party like Vision from the left, not trying to prop them up.
Yet this time, Vision received more endorsements from VDLC than any other party; of the ten endorsements for City council candidates, four went to Vision hopefuls, while only two of the three COPE candidates, Jean Swanson and Derrick O’Keefe, received the Labour Council nod of approval. Would it not have made more sense for VDLC to endorse COPE candidate Anne Roberts, one of the few candidates with experience, rather than an extra person from Vision? Or even one of the other One City candidates? Really, anybody but someone from a developer’s party.
Strategy for workers
I don’t put all the blame on the VDLC delegates here; I know that they made their decision with input from their union members. The shame is that an opportunity to argue with workers about the nature of bosses’ parties like Vision has been lost. A party so intimately connected to big business doesn’t sound like a party friendly to workers to me. It sounds like Justin Trudeau’s Liberals; they can talk left, but when it comes to policy, they side with businesses against working people every time.
And equating anti-capitalist candidates like Swanson, O’Keefe and Roberts with the party that has made workers’ lives worse will make it harder for any of the endorsed candidates to get elected.
Maybe our trade union activists could take a page from campaigns like Jeremy Corbyn’s in the UK, and Democratic Socialists of America member and New York City primary winner Ocasio-Cortez’ in the US. Being electable doesn’t mean being middle-of-the road. It means being bold enough to make working-class demands that really motivate people to bother to come out and vote; after all, only 11 percent of voters bothered to vote municipally last time. Demands like the call for a rent freeze, for a mansion tax to pay for affordable housing, and the other planks of COPE’s City We Need platform and petition are inspiring thousands of people. Those are real reforms that would make life better for workers in this city. Isn’t that what our unions should be supporting?
If you live in Vancouver join the fight against the 1% by joining the COPE City We Need canvassing team
This article first appeared at socialist.ca.