Why the NDP cleared a Vancouver Island union local’s pro-Eby effort

Why the NDP cleared a Vancouver Island union local's pro-Eby effort
David Eby.

A Vancouver Island union local is behind a letter that sparked an investigation into David Eby’s NDP leadership campaign and complaints from disqualified rival Anjali Appadurai of a double standard.

BC NDP chief electoral officer Elizabeth Cull said she spent weeks investigating the source of the letter, printed on United Steelworkers’ letterhead, that urged members to join the NDP to support Eby’s leadership bid.

“We’re not asking people to sign up and stay as NDP members,” that letter says. “We believe by electing Eby and reducing the percentage of the vote for the anti-logging candidate we can push back on the green agenda.” It says supporting Eby “gives us leverage with him after he’s elected.”

Cull’s six-page report on her investigation into the letter found no evidence Eby had co-ordinated with the authors of the memo to influence the race or fraudulently recruit members.

It did not violate the B.C. Election Act or party rules, she found. But she also could not determine the source of the memo.

The Steelworkers’ provincial office disavowed the note and said they did not know where it came from.

The Tyee has traced the memo to United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, which represents about 6,000 forestry workers on Vancouver Island and along the coast. The local has been a vocal opponent of efforts to curtail logging of old-growth forests, arguing the policies cost jobs and hurt communities.

The local distributed the letter and sent an email to members urging them to join the BC NDP and back Eby, adding that union staff would also be calling members and facilitating signups.

United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 did not respond to a request for comment.

The memo re-emerged on social media after climate activist Anjali Appadurai was eliminated from the race after a separate report from Cull found she had improperly co-ordinated with third-party environmental groups to sign up members.

Appadurai says the party’s decision reflects a double standard.

“We were expected to take responsibility for the actions of third parties,” Appadurai said last week before her disqualification. “And we didn’t see that standard applied across the board to all candidates.”

Mysterious memo

Scott Lunny said that when he first saw the memo online, he thought it laughable that anyone would think it came from one of the most powerful unions in British Columbia.

“It’s clearly not an official document from our union,” said Lunny, a former BC NDP vice-president and the president of United Steelworkers District 3, which includes B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

“It’s not signed. It’s not on official letterhead. It’s not well-written… it clearly didn’t come out of my office or our national office.”

Lunny said he decided to not engage in debate about the letter.

“I’m not interested in people just calling me names and telling me I’m in the pockets of big oil, that I’m a `union bro.’ I don’t need to get in that debate with anyone on Twitter,” Lunny said.

The letter posted on Twitter by Torrance Coste of the Wilderness Committee, who supported Appadurai, was unsigned.

But The Tyee tracked down the second page of the same document, which was not posted online. It was signed by Local 1-1937. The Tyee also confirmed a second, emailed letter was sent to union members on Aug. 22.

“We are asking members to join for the sole purpose of gaining votes for a candidate that will not make policy that steelworker members cannot live with. We need to elect David Eby,” reads a letter signed by the local’s officers and business agents.

“If a USW activist contacts you and asks if you will help do your part to ensure we have leadership in government that supports industrial workers, we hope you will support the challenge we all face and sign up to vote,” it later says.

Cull’s Oct. 14 report on the memo said she received complaints in August and September about “third party involvement” related to the letter, as well as attempts to recruit members who did not actually support the BC NDP. She reported the Eby campaign met with Steelworkers’ representatives on three occasions in a five-week span from mid-August to mid-September, but found no proof they had discussed campaigning for Eby.

Lunny says the Steelworkers opted to not endorse any candidate in the race.

It is not clear what Cull did to find the letter’s source. Her report notes Lunny’s correct hypothesis that one of the Steelworkers’ union locals had created it.

But she found “no basis for concluding that the USW local did so in a manner that was not independent of the Eby campaign.”

The affair highlights the nuances in what third parties can and cannot do in B.C. elections and leadership races.

In Appadurai’s case, Cull concluded her campaign co-ordinated member signups with Dogwood and that the environmental organization’s public signup effort counted as a campaign contribution that exceeded donation limits.

Eby’s campaign denies any knowledge of the local’s activity and said they only learned about its campaign from social media. The union letter does not appear to have been public. And the Election Act exempts a union’s communications with its own members from campaign spending limits.

The two cases “seem like apples and oranges,” Lunny said.

The Tyee provided the Appadurai campaign with a copy of Cull’s report but did not hear back before publication time.

Political science professor Hamish Telford agreed the two sets of allegations were fundamentally different, even if they appeared similar at first blush.

“I haven’t seen enough evidence against David Eby to suggest there is a double standard here,” said Telford, a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.

But he added that the Steelworkers’ letter does highlight a rift in the BC NDP between private-sector workers whose jobs depend on resource extraction and a more environmentalist wing of the party that has been alienated by Appadurai’s disqualification. He said it was up to Eby to repair that rift.

“It’s going to be really incumbent on him to repair the damage, not only with the environmental movement, but I think the NDP has damaged its credentials here on its progressivism, its commitment to diversity and inclusion and its commitment to younger voters,” Telford said.

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