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July 2015

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Alberta Election Rocks Canada

"Death of a Dynasty." That's how Maclean's Magazine described the May election in Alberta that brought down almost 44 years of governance by the province's Progressive Conservatives, a party that's somewhat less right wing than Alberta native and federal Prime Minister Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada.

Fed up with the arrogance of a conservative leadership that blamed citizens for its own failings, voters turned to the New Democratic Party, strongly supported by organized labour, and premier Rachel Notley to lead the province, home to the oil sands energy boom.

A recently initiated Edmonton Local 424 apprentice, 23-year-old Jon Carson, was elected to the provincial legislature as part of the New Democratic wave. Newly elected members of the legislative assembly include an increased number of women and more closely represent the demographics of Alberta, where the average age is between 36 and 37 years.

"This will be a new and better Alberta," says Local 424 Business Agent Ken MacKenzie. The conservatives, says MacKenzie, were friends of big oil and big business and had initiated the most anti-labour legislation in Canada.

In 2010, only a last-minute push by labour activists helped narrowly defeat a resolution at a Progressive Conservative convention that would have endorsed giving workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement the option of opting out of paying union dues, the equivalent of right-to-work legislation in the U.S.

The Tories have close ties with anti-union construction contractors and have passed legislation that gives employers a 90-day window to pressure workers into giving up their union once they have voted to join.

"We've been waging a defensive battle for too long. Now, finally, we have a government that we can work with, a government that will listen to working Albertans," MacKenzie said.

Local 424 represents more than 8,000 members, many of whom work in the oil sands region.

The local's political action committee endorsed 15 candidates and staffed phone banks to contact members in 11 provincial electoral constituencies, urging them to get out and vote. All but one of the endorsed candidates won election.

"Now that vote of frustration with the Conservative government needs to be turned into active support for the government. We wanted a more participatory democracy and now we have that opportunity," MacKenzie says.

The local only just revived its political action committee in March and is looking to make new gains in federal elections in October, assisted by an all-out effort by the First District office and the Canadian Labour Congress.

While many members support the agenda of the New Democrats, says MacKenzie, most voters wanted to dump the Tories, led by Premier Jim Prentice who, when asked during a debate to explain the province's debt, despite the huge revenues of big oil companies, said, "In terms of who is responsible, we all need only look in the mirror."

Notley, the new premier, is not expected to declare "war" on the oil companies, says MacKenzie. But, with support from across the province and "the push from working Albertans," he says, Notley can use the electoral mandate to win a fairer deal and more cooperation from the energy sector to help the province meet its needs.

The new provincial NDP MLAs also include two activists from the United Food and Commercial Workers.

"This election shows there's a place for progressive politics anywhere," says Chris O'Halloran, Canadian national representative of the UFCW, representing 30,000 members from retail clerks on the oil patch to others in slaughterhouses, private schools and assisted living facilities.

"You have to look at opportunities and allies and the partnerships you need to build," O'Halloran said. "When you have a good plan, a solid idea and a solid platform, you can win a public that has an appetite for change to support a new agenda."

The UFCW, says O'Halloran, decided five years ago to become more fully engaged in politics, fielding members for office in NDP party organizations and selecting candidates who would run for public office. One member, Chris Nielson, was selected to run for parliament. The union's strategists expected that Nielson might lose the first time, but would have won enough recognition to be elected four years later. "You need a lot of time to knock on doors and build relationships," says O'Halloran. Instead, Nielson was elected in the NDP wave.

"I congratulate our members and leaders in Alberta for fully engaging in the political process and turning back labour's adversaries," says International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "The lessons of political activism are important south of the 49th parallel where, for instance, the state of Texas has been under conservative rule for only half as long as Alberta. Grassroots politics works."