In the June issue of The Electrical Worker, we featured members who serve in public office in the U.S. They are not alone. Across Canada, dozens of IBEW members serve their communities and provinces in elected and appointed offices. Here are some of their stories.
Minister of Communities, Land and Environment
Prince Edward Island
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Local 1928
Robert Mitchell’s political activism goes back to his youth, when he stuffed envelopes and built signs for Liberal Party candidates his father supported in his rural town on Prince Edward Island.
| Robert Mitchell
Today, Mitchell, who recently retired from Maritime Electric Co. Ltd. where he worked for 32 years as a lineman and control and communications technician, is the first cabinet member with the portfolio, “Minister of Communities, Land and Environment.”
He ran unsuccessfully as an MLA (member of legislative assembly) in 2003, before winning the position in 2007, serving a riding (district) of 5,000.
Mitchell was considering running a campaign to be PEI’s premier, but stepped aside for a Liberal Party colleague, a law school dean. After his colleague won, Mitchell was appointed to his cabinet.
“Everybody knows me. I can go to the supermarket to get groceries and end up being there two hours talking to people and answering questions. I love my district and now I’m delighted to be in a leadership position in the province,” Mitchell says.
Who lives in your district?
The district was once a bedroom community of Charlottetown, PEI’s capital. We have a lot of retired professionals and younger professionals, but also have pockets of lower-income families and seniors.
What are the major issues facing Prince Edward Island?
We have a great provincial hospital system. Serious health issues are dealt with immediately. But citizens want us to improve wait times for [less immediate] surgeries and tests.
Pesticide usage and taxes are concerns. We have lost some population to Western Canada where there are more jobs and higher wages. No one wants their taxes to go up, but our revenues are limited.
Our economy has improved and we have a phenomenal educational system, much improved from when I was young. Now, instead of a ferry, we have a bridge that connects us to the mainland in New Brunswick. Because of our size, island businesses do face challenges that they perhaps may not face in larger jurisdictions. But having said that, our size is also one of our biggest assets.
How do legislators get along with each other?
I would say we are combative but cordial. Every election, we have four parties contending—the Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and Conservatives. I think, for the most part, the candidates are quality people who put their names forward for the right reasons.
Legislators include some former government workers who belonged to unions, self-employed business people, fishermen, lawyers and retired members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
How does your trade union background inform your political work?
I was a shop steward serving my local union on PEI before it was merged with Local 1928. Dealing with individual members and their problems was good training for me. And I was at many union meetings where things went much differently than the business manager had planned, just like in politics.
Bradford West Gwillimbury, Ontario
Toronto Local 353
A member of Toronto Local 353, James Leduc has worked for 17 years as a control technician at the University of Toronto. Leduc, who coaches young athletes, first got involved in his neighborhood in a growing community of 30,000 because he was frustrated at the lack of recreational opportunities.
| James Leduc
He ran for councillor in 2003 and was defeated. But he was elected to the nine-member council in 2006 after a successful door-to-door campaign. He sat on the council for eight years. “I decided to take a bigger leadership role,” says Leduc, who won office as deputy mayor, serving citizens, 90 percent of whom commute outside the city for work.
What are the main issues facing your community?
A growing population demands improved sewer and water infrastructure. Our nine-member council, including an Ironworker and a member of Unifor (formerly Canadian Autoworkers), needs to plan for the future. Only one-third of the council is regularly supportive of union labour, but others pay close attention to the perspective of union members.
How does your union background help your work as a political leader?
Building trades members are well suited to help modernize infrastructure because of our experience in project management. We learn to control budgets and look at numbers. Public office is a great opportunity to tap our strengths and apply them to the electrical and mechanical needs of our communities. The IBEW has given me that experience.
Are local politics divisive?
The union movement in Canada is under attack from politicians in different quarters and needs to make a strong case for employing union labour and investing in union training. However, municipal politics is the level where we don’t align by parties. I always encourage my fellow councillors to be nonpartisan to be better able to talk to whoever is in power in the province and work with the local member of the legislative assembly, regardless of party label. This is the local level where you respect the resident.
Greg McFarlane, a member of Winnipeg Local 2085 became well-known to delegates of the IBEW’s 38th Constitutional Convention in 2011 after he joined with co-worker Rob James to win the “IBEW Has Talent” contest in Vancouver.
| Greg McFarlane
After his family migrated to Winnipeg from Jamaica in 1981, McFarlane’s father moved his family to Montreal, where Greg joined the military reserves. Upon completion of his service, he started and finished his apprenticeship program and joined Montreal Local 568. He later returned to Winnipeg as a Red Seal-certified electrician and a few years later worked as an organizer for Local 2085.
Today, McFarlane, 35, is a member of the executive board Local 2085, first vice president of the Winnipeg Labour Council, vice president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, representing Manitoba’s young workers and treasurer of an NDP ward organization.
After deep involvement in local political campaigns endorsed by the labour council, McFarlane, who coaches basketball on the side, decided in 2014 to run as a trustee for the local school board. He won the election, receiving the most votes of nine candidates running for four positions, the youngest trustee elected in the division.
“I’m coming into public office as a worker, an activist, someone who is young, passionate and focused on the future not just somebody looking for a retirement,” says McFarlane. “I have a one-year-old son who will be going to the school I represent at age 5. I want him to be prepared for real life.”
Why are you interested in public education?
As chair of the young workers committee, I helped develop a scholarship fund in 2010 for young students who are succeeding and want to give back to the labor movement upon completion of their course or degree. I’ve found a way to make it sustainable through fundraising and investing. The award is open to community college, university and apprenticeship, labour history and business students that desire to use their skills to further the labour movement.
McFarlane’s dual roles as a local union executive board member and school trustee were instrumental in helping develop a joint partnership with the school division’s electrical trades program and Local 2085. “It’s a great way to organize and train our apprentice at the grassroots and instill the Code of Excellence,” says McFarlane. “Political action is important because we need to keep pressure on the governing bodies to maintain all we’ve fought so hard to get. “And what better way than to be in office and make change from there, top-down?”
Regina Local 2067
Duane Leicht became a member of Regina Local 2067 in 1994 and has been working in the transmission switching stations of Saskatchewan Power since 2001.
“I’ve always been interested in politics,” says Leicht, who placed his name into the running for councillor in his town of Kipling when one of the incumbents stepped down in 2002.
Leicht enlisted a couple of co-workers, retired farmers, oil field workers and staff from a local high school to promote his run. “I’ve never done much campaigning,” he says. “I put a picture in the local newspapers and talked to folks in the local grocery store and hardware store.” He won a seat on the six-member council and was unanimously elected mayor.
What are the main issues Kipling faces?
Residential waste collection and the quality of drinking water are challenges. Property taxes haven’t changed much. That makes it hard to install a $5 million reverse osmosis water filtering system, a very expensive commitment in a town of only 1,100. Our biggest challenge was the shutdown of our local hospital a few years back. One doctor had left the community. Another doctor’s license was pulled. We have free medical care, but communities compete for physicians.
How do you get along with your council peers?
We are focused on the needs of local citizens. There is no partisan divide. I live on the same street with two of the councillors.
What keeps you inspired?
There’s some satisfaction when you see a big project come to completion. We had a ribbon cutting in May for a brand new hospital that serves several municipalities. Funding for hospitals is 20 percent local and 80 percent provincial. So we had to raise money with a special tax levy and by sponsoring dinners and auctions and soliciting bequeaths. One individual donated a house and three-quarters of his farmland.