The One City Vancouver logo.
The One City Vancouver logo. Credit: One City Vancouver Credit: One City Vancouver

Talk about getting out ahead of events! The Vancouver and District Labour Council (VDLC)  this September announced the civic political party, One City  would receive its endorsement in the next city election.

This arguably premature move was taken  despite the fact the election is not slated to occur until 2026. Doing so, it signalled a significant change in how the venerable labour organization, founded in 1889, is orienting itself toward local politics currently.

Stephen von Sychowski, the president of the VDLC,  told me in an October 23 phone interview that he thought his group’s endorsement of One City was “a big deal.” He said this resolution marks the first time the VDLC has endorsed a single city party since it backed COPE in 2002. He went on to say that VDLC would vet all candidates for city office and might very well endorse non-One City candidates if their values were in alignment with those of the VDLC. He told me that his group had made the decision to back One City after a long deliberative process because One City, a relatively new player in city politics, had successfully elected two candidates last election, “exceeding a lot of expectations,” with their unsuccessful candidates racking up relatively high vote counts.

“One City out organized and out spent other left of centre parties last time,” he said.

This latest news from the VDLC merits some reflection, and its implications reach far beyond the city limits.

When I lived, years ago, in Vancouver’s immigrant, bohemian and working-class neighborhoods in East Van, I would often see anarchist graffiti painted on walls. None of them reflected much enthusiasm for electoral politics. “Don’t Vote: It Only Encourages Them” was one. Another memorable slogan said, “Voting Just Lets You Choose Which Boot They’ll Use to Kick Us.”

Historically, some elements of organized labour like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Western Canada’s One Big Union have shared this animus against electoral politics and focused on what could be gained through general strikes, factory seizures and other forms of direct action. Some of these more radical worker groups even refused, on principle, to bargain with management or sign contracts, seeing such activity as counterproductive  class collaboration.

By and large, however, most Canadian unions have held that the way forward for workers  involved organizing, collective bargaining  and involvement in electoral politics to influence laws and law enforcement in a pro-worker direction. Canadian organized labour’s role in creating  the NDP reflects this approach, as does the existence of over one hundred labour councils like the VDLC across Canada. These councils often get involved in local elections to support pro-labour candidates and policies.

Most observers, even those like me who are sympathetic with  the IWW’s  intransigent stance, would agree that what the electoral approach lacks in revolutionary glamour it often makes up for in practical, if partial and often flawed, achievements.

A judicious combination of militant strikes, mass organizing and involvement in electoral politics has brought significant reforms like the eight-hour day, minimum wage laws, single payer public health care,  and public support for workers injured on the job. As the great bumper sticker has it: “If you like your weekends, thank the union movement.” The electoral politics tactic has even led, after years of campaigning, to the passage of the historic, if currently under-enforced, Westray Act, which can hold negligent employers criminally liable when they kill and maim their workers.

The VDLC, founded in 1889 as the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, has a long history of involvement in local politics. The council helped found one significant city political group, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE)  and saw COPE win control of city council in 2002. The COPE council soon honored time-tested left-wing tradition by falling apart in a bitter dispute over whether council should promote policies backed by COPE membership. The split saw the members of council willing to ignore membership-backed policies split off and form a more compromised and centrist group, called VISION.  (Full disclosure. I have supported COPE over the years, and I continue to have many friends in that organization, as I do in One City and some of the other city parties.)

Despite the unhappy outcome of its first majority council, the VDLC has continued to engage city politics, often trying to broker shared slate and co-operation agreements among left of centre city political formations in ensuing elections. But in the 2022 election, a newly formed and self-described centrist party, A Better City (ABC) swept to power, electing all its candidates for city council, school board and parks board. Led by Mayor Ken Sim and sardonically known to its critics as the Always Be Capitalist party, ABC’s victory led to the labour council’s decision to endorse One City and urge union members to join the party.

Asked for comment, COPE executive member Connie Hubbs told me on October 25 that the VDLC helped co-found COPE and that COPE’s current electeds have had productive relationships with their One City colleagues on council and school board. She added that her organization welcomes allies “from all progressive groups including labour in our ongoing work for justice and climate action.” Jessica Bailey, another member of the COPE executive, added : “COPE will continue fighting to support workers and issues that workers are concerned with, regardless of the VDLC’s decision to endorse OneCity.”

One City councillor Christine Boyle had this comment. “It’s an important endorsement, particularly as residents increasingly see Mayor Sim and the ABC majority kill the Living Wage, kill the Renters Office, and make other decisions that make life in Vancouver harder for regular people. We know it is going to take progressives coming together to defeat ABC next election. There needs to be one progressive option in 2026, dedicated to making real, tangible changes to benefit Vancouverites. OneCity is the strong foundation on which we can build a progressive big tent.” (A request for comment from civic Greens was not answered in time to be included in this column.)

Meanwhile, ABC city councillor Mike Klassen responded to an emailed question about whether ABC was disappointed by the VDLC decision to back One City by saying he thought the decision would disappoint members of COPE and the Greens in Vancouver more than his party.

“Having followed progressive politics in Vancouver for a long time, I know that the VDLC has typically tried to strike a balance among several groups. While in 2022 it could be argued they spread their support across too many organizations, their pivot toward supporting only One City feels like they’re overcorrecting for a strategic misstep. They could potentially alienate a lot of allies in the process, some of whom might find a home with ABC Vancouver,” he wrote. It is hard to discern emotional tone in an email, admittedly, but I think I sense a bit of glee and schadenfreude in Klassen’s response.

Whether or not the VDLC’s new policy, which seems to be to name One City as its lead endorsement but remain open to endorsing candidates from other progressive parties later will pay off in electoral victory remains to be seen, and it is not entirely clear to me how it differs in substance from the “one from column A and two from column B” approach the council has taken in recent elections. Workers and their allies will follow this drama with interest, and hope that it ends with a city government in Vancouver that is more reliably pro-labour than the current one.

Tom Sandborn

Tom Sandborn lives and writes on unceded Indigenous territory in Vancouver. He is a widely published free lance writer who covered health policy and labour beats for the Tyee on line for a dozen years,...