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Dan Fumano: Major Vancouver labour group changes direction, throws support behind one party

Column: The Vancouver and District Labour Council is changing its approach to political action three years before the 2026 election and has thrown its support behind OneCity.

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Vancouver, BC: SEPTEMBER 29, 2023 -- Stephen von Sychowski is the president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council. He is pictured at a picket line outside the SFU Harbour Centre in Vancouver, BC Friday, September 29, 2023. (Photo by Jason Payne/ PNG) (For story by Dan Fumano) [PNG Merlin Archive]
Stephen von Sychowski is the president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council. He is pictured at a SFU teaching assistants' picket line outside SFU Harbour Centre in Vancouver, on Friday. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

A major Vancouver labour organization is changing its political approach by encouraging its members to join and support a single party, three years before the next municipal election.

The Vancouver and District Labour Council, which represents workers from more than 80 affiliated unions, has been involved in Vancouver politics for much of its 134-year history.

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In recent municipal elections, the VDLC has acted as a sort of broker, arranging agreements to endorse slates with candidates from various left-of-centre political parties.

But at a meeting earlier this month — three years before the 2026 Vancouver election — the labour council decided to throw its support behind OneCity, which has one councillor and one school board trustee.

“This does represent a significant shift in approach for us,” council president Stephen von Sychowski said.

In recent decades, the labour council endorsed slates involving some combination of COPE, the Civic NDP, the Green party, and Vision Vancouver party candidates, he said. In 2018, the labour council made an agreement involving four parties — the largest number to von Sychowski’s knowledge.

“In the past, we’ve been talking about two parties or three parties (per election). In 2018 it was as many as four. It’s always been pretty successful under those circumstances,” he said. “But then you look at the last election.”

Before the 2022 election, he said, the labour council determined it was not feasible to broker such an arrangement because too many left-of-centre parties were intent on running too many candidates. Six parties sought the council’s support — OneCity, COPE, Greens, Forward Together, Vision and Vote Socialist — and the organization endorsed at least one council or school board candidate from all but Vote Socialist.

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The new ABC party, seen as a successor to the centre-right NPA, won the mayor’s seat and got every one of its council, school and park board candidates elected. Only three labour-council-backed council candidates were elected — two incumbent Greens, and one from OneCity.

“There is no math that makes 10 (council) seats work amongst five or six parties,” von Sychowski said. “It’s a big part of why we lost the election, in my view. ABC presented a united slate of candidates with a single message, versus a divided array of left-of-centre parties with their own, sometimes conflicting, policies and views.”

Stephen von Sychowski
Stephen von Sychowski is the president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council. He is pictured at a picket line outside the SFU Harbour Centre in Vancouver, BC Friday, September 29, 2023. (Photo by Jason Payne/ PNG) Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

The labour council can’t tell parties to disband or decide how many candidates they run, von Sychowski said. “But we can make decisions about our support, and we can focus that support to where we think it’s really useful and most appropriate.”

The labour council has decided OneCity has momentum and electability, and shares the most overlap with the labour group on values and policy.

The labour council is not ruling out endorsements for other parties’ candidates, including the incumbent Greens or COPE’s school trustee, if they run again in 2026, von Sychowski said.

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The labour council’s motion, which was unanimously approved by delegates representing affiliated unions at a meeting this month, says the organization will continue supporting labour-endorsed politicians “and their parties” — plural — in Vancouver.

But the motion also says the council will encourage delegates and affiliates “to support, join and take an active part in OneCity.”

OneCity was founded in 2014, and many of its leaders and members have backgrounds in organized labour.

“We need progressive voices to come together to present a clear alternative to ABC in the next election,” said OneCity’s only councillor, Christine Boyle. “Having the support of unionized workers is an important piece of that.”

The labour council represents about 60,000 members, including longshore, construction, public sector, and health care workers. Most, but not all, are City of Vancouver residents and potential voters.

“This is a significant shift from the past where the labour council would be seen as the broker or deal-maker between different parties,” said Bill Tieleman, a veteran Vancouver-based political strategist and TEAM council candidate last year.

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Tieleman has a long history working with organized labour, including as a past communications director for the B.C. Federation of Labour, and still does communication and lobbying work for union clients. He said that the support of any organization that can communicate directly to tens of thousands of members, as the labour council can, is valuable for a municipal party.

But he doubts labour council’s support now will carry nearly as much weight as before 2017, when unions could cut six-figure cheques to support civic parties, before the B.C. NDP’s campaign financing reforms.

Joey Hartman, a former labour council president between 2011 and 2018 and current chair of the B.C. Labour Heritage Centre, said she does not recall a time in recent history when the labour council took a position like this supporting one party years before an election.

In 1968, the labour council was instrumental in the formation of COPE, as a party for the city’s left-wing voters. In some ways, Hartman said, the labour council’s new move to align with one party is like “going back” in history.

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“The fact they’ve chosen to do this, this far ahead of an election is more of a return,” said Hartman, who no longer lives in Vancouver or is involved with labour council. “It’s really recognizing the importance of municipal politics in people’s day-to-day lives and stepping into that space, rather than just waiting for an election.”

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