December 2010

North of 49°
index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to
Alberta Unions Counter Anti-Worker Political Shift

The rise of the anti-labour Wildrose Alliance Party and the growing influence of anti-union contractors in the governing Progressive Conservatives pose a serious threat to working families across Alberta.

"[Wildrose] has been coy on its policies in a number of areas, but the ones they have been forthcoming about are largely detrimental to organized labour," says Ricardo Acuña, executive director of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta in an interview with the Alberta Federation of Labour's magazine, Union.

The Wildrose Alliance split off from the Tories in 2008. With only four members in the legislative assembly, the new party is polling between 20 and 30 percent among voters, increasing the likelihood it will form the next official opposition. Some even predict it could pull in enough support to form a minority government, a chilling prospect for union activists.

Party leader Danielle Smith announced that one of her top priorities will be to "stand up to the unions," which translates into support for right-to-work legislation, tax cuts for wealthy corporations and individuals and massive cutbacks to public services—cuts that would fall hardest on working families.

And while most observers don't expect an election until sometime next fall, the Progressive Conservatives—already one of most right-wing parties in Canada—are attempting to neutralize the splinter party by turning even further to the right.

In late October, only a last-minute push by labour activists helped narrowly defeat a resolution at the Tories' provincial convention that supported legislation giving workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement the option of opting out of paying union dues.

"It wasn't any different than the right-to-work legislation that you find in parts of the United States," said Barry Stevens, who is Toronto, Ontario, Local 353 president and First District political action/media strategist.

The increasingly anti-labour rhetoric coming from the government shows that anti-union forces inside the party are gaining ground, says Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan.

There has been an increasing coziness between anti-union contractors like the Merit Contractors Association and Premier Ed Stelmach since the last election in 2008.

The Tories celebrated their last victory by passing Bill 26, known as the Labour Relations Amendment Act, whose provisions are aimed directly at the building trades. The bill effectively bans salting by making it illegal for anyone to take part in a union election who hasn't been employed for at least 30 days before the vote. The new rules also give employers a 90-day window to pressure workers into giving up their union once they have voted to join.

A second section of the bill prevents Market Enhancement Recovery Funds, which are union-run funds that help signatory contractors compete with nonunion ones, from using employer contributions.

Despite the increasingly anti-labour atmosphere in the province, union activists are hopeful that the fracturing of the once dominant Progressive Conservatives—who have been in power for more than 30 years—could open up new opportunities for the labour movement to make gains in the political sphere.

"The next election will be significantly different from any we have seen in years," McGowan said. "We have to take advantage of all the opportunities available to us."

The Liberals and New Democrats hold only 10 out of 83 seats in the legislative assembly, but labour activists hope their grassroots efforts will give the opposition to Stelmach and Wildrose a boost.

The labour federation has begun convening meetings with local union activists across the province to shape a new grassroots political strategy, inviting noted progressive linguist George Lakoff to help labour shape its message.

Already a new coalition uniting unions, community groups and social service agencies has come together to fight proposed cutbacks to the already strained public sector.