Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What's next for Alberta unions?

By the weekend, Bill 45 (punishing illegal strikes) and Bill 46 (pre-empting collective bargaining and imposing a settlement on Alberta Union of Provincial Employee members) will be law. So what is next for organized labour?

I see two paths forwards. The first is challenging the constitutionality of both bills under the Charter. That is a long-term strategy. It might be possible to get both in front of a Queen’s Bench judge by the next election but likely these will end up (in 2018 or 2019) in front of the Supreme Court. And a win here isn’t that meaningful—too much time will have passed and the Tories simply don’t seem to care if legislation is unconstitutional—they’ll just enact another law and let unions fight that one too.

The second, and more important, is a strategy to unseat the Tory government in the next election. Everyone expects the Tories to form government. The result is that the Tories are not held to account for even the most egregious behaviours (in the last weeks we have allegations of dead foster kids, dead seniors, mis-spent public money, ethical violations getting a pass by the ethics commissioner, unconstitutional privacy legislation, poor effort around a(nother) massive environmental event, etc). The unseemly close relation between big oil and the Tories means that for labour, the Tories are not only untrustworthy (e.g., compare and contrast Redford’s position on organized labour with her government’s actions), but are basically unredeemable, even if under “new” management.

One of the challenges for the unions is that there is no viable alternative of a palatable political persuasion. Alberta’s left remains fractured (for likely good reasons in the eyes of left-leaning and centreist politicians and activists). And the Wild Rose, while making nice-nice with labour this week (and probably supported by a goodly number of rank-and-file unionists), are hardly labour friendly.

The most viable strategy for labour, then, is an ABC (Anyone But Conservative) strategy. This takes advantage of the Wild Rose support in the south and the more centre-leftist leanings in urban areas (obviously I’m generalizing) with the goal of producing a minority government. It also gets unions out of the difficult (and probably impossible) job of asking their members to vote against the members’ own political preferences by allowing past PC supporters to go left or right (depending on their inclinations).

This could, of course, split the union vote and allow the PCs to slide up the middle (which, for non-Alberta readers means “the right”). But it is still a better bet than hoping for some kind of socialist “hail Mary and come to Jesus” breakthrough (however much I might personally want that) or doing nothing.

There are, of course, a couple of challenges with this. The first is that, for all of the singing of Solidarity Forever, the labour movement in Alberta is deeply divided. While I’m generalizing a bit for simplicity, the basic dynamics are these. The construction unions are very conservative and like the Petro Conservatives because their policies mean jobs (at least for awhile).

The rest of labour dislikes the PCs but can be bought off. Most recently we saw the teachers throwing in with the PCs, but the nature of Alberta labour relations is that getting bought off just before the election is the most viable strategy to make gains for members. Can the non-constructions unions hold it together long enough to organize a provincial campaign? Some of this will depend on how hard the Tories hit them over the next few years and whether trade unions are prepared to hold their noses when (and if) the pre-election gift basket arrives..

A second challenge is that, among the non-construction unions, there are some long-standing differences and some, shall we say “strong” personalities? This augurs against close working relationships between the big players and big unions. The Tories have traditionally exploited this as part of their “election-year jack-pot” strategy. That said, the trade unionists I have talked to are pissed and feel betrayed—that augurs in favour of some sort of sustained and joint action.

A third challenge is generating a coherent storyline to attack the Tories on. As much as freedom of expression and freedom of association are important values, they don’t really resonate with the average Albertan. And Albertans have not traditionally been sympathetic to public sector workers, viewing them as overpaid and lazy. This reflects Tory messaging and a certain degree of ideological predisposition by Albertans, although the nurses and teachers are notable exceptions to this dim view.

But gaining the support of Albertans in general might well not be necessary.

In a game of swing votes, the votes of organized public-sector unionists plus spouses amount to some 600,000 votes (a rough calculation). And the attack on public-sector wages, pensions and rights—plus the sense of betrayal after the 2012 election—is a compelling storyline to those members. Given that voting turnout in Alberta in 2012 was only 1.2 million, a committed base of 600,000 could unseat the Tories in many ridings. A bit of cooperation by the centre-left would further help pull ridings away from the Tories. Focusing on these bread-and-butter issues among unions members also has the advantage of legitimacy: it is hard to deny that this is the proper work and audience of unions.

So, as my grandmother might have asked, what does that get you?

Well, best case (and I use the term loosely), you get a minority government that is vulnerable to the moderating effects of other parties and which has to govern well or face being unseated. You also get a fracture in the traditional Tory-business compact, perhaps opening up political discourse and opportunities.

Yes, a minority government (most likely Tory or Wild Rose) could still do bad things to the interests of workers. But that possibility is better than the certainty that another Tory majority government will do bad things to workers.

The questions are whether organized labour can get (and stay) organized to achieve political change.

-- Bob Barnetson

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