Calgary Herald: Organized labour could be a factor in 2019 election

This article was originally published in the Calgary Herald. You can find the original article here.

Premier Rachel Notley had a message as she stood in front of hundreds of unionized paramedics, lab technicians and medical specialists three weeks ago.

Speaking at the Health Sciences Association of Alberta’s convention, Notley said her NDP government has the back of organized labour, as it beefed up labour laws and maintained public services in the midst of the province’s economic downturn.

But now, she said, both the government and public sector unions face the United Conservative Party’s plans to cut taxes for the rich, slash public service jobs and privatize health care.

“That’s why we need you, all of you, to keep speaking up,” Notley said to applause.

As Alberta heads toward a provincial election in the spring of 2019, organized labour may play a significant political role over the next year, even as it copes with a changed landscape.

Under legislation passed by the NDP, unions — like corporations — are no longer allowed to donate money or services to political parties.

But unions are weighing how they can have a political impact.

The health workers union has taken the lead, with a Health Matters advertising campaign that aired last month and will likely run again in the fall. The union makes no bones that the campaign, intended to raise health care as an election issue, is aimed at the UCP’s pledge to cut spending and what the union sees as its flirtation with increased private health care.

Union president Mike Parker said in a recent interview that the union won’t endorse any party in the upcoming election, but he made it clear he believes the best option is the NDP, noting that workers have made significant gains under Notley after years of conservative governments in Alberta.

Parker made no apologies for the union’s political stance, though he acknowledged not all members are in agreement.

“Everything that we do these days has a political skew to it,” he said. “There’s no way around it. Our funding models come directly out of government. They’re administered through (Alberta Health Services), so our livelihood and the livelihoods of our members and the safety of the public all depend on the political conversation.”

Parker says other unions will also step up politically before the provincial election because “all of labour recognizes the risk here.”

The Alberta Federation of Labour, which is affiliated with the NDP, has launched its own “Next Alberta” campaign framed around the changing provincial economy.

“The upcoming Alberta election will determine whether we’ll be properly prepared to face these challenges — or not,” reads the AFL website.

“We can choose politicians who deny that change is happening. Or, we can choose politicians who see the challenge presented.”

AFL president Gil McGowan did not return repeated phone messages.

UCP house leader Jason Nixon said the party respects the rights of unions to be involved politically.

But he suggested many union members aren’t sold on either the NDP or their unions’ stance, preferring instead the UCP’s positions on economic development and fiscal responsibility.

“It’s not something that surprises us. We were anticipating it,” said Nixon of the union activity

“With that said, I also think that the union groups that are taking the time to work with us and to help us solve the problems we’re trying to solve for Albertans are going to be more productive … (than those) just automatically attacking us.”

Other public-sector unions are taking a more low-key tack than the health workers union, at least for now.

United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith said the union will inform its members about the various parties’ platforms and “encourage them to consider voting for the party that is most labour-friendly, most public service-friendly, most Alberta-friendly.”

Both the nurses and health workers unions are part of the AFL, and Smith said she supports the Next Alberta campaign.

But she doesn’t anticipate the nurses union will run any ads of its own, either in the run-up to the campaign or during the election period.

The Alberta Teachers Association and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees say they will take a similar approach, working to inform their members about the political positions on offer.

Their respective presidents, Greg Jeffery and Guy Smith, said they expect a high level of engagement from their members in next year’s vote.

The UNA’s Heather Smith said the next election is a significant one for Albertans.

She said she recently heard of an employer-side labour lawyer speaking about how employers don’t need to worry about changes to beefed-up labour laws and occupational health and safety protections enacted by the NDP because they would be scrapped next year by a new UCP government.

“I think we have made incredible headway in this province in terms of the rights of working people, especially working people who may not have the benefit of a union,” she said.

“And I would hate to see us roll back decades again. So yeah, I think there is a lot at stake.”