PHOTOS: The late Jim Prentice, during his successful 2014 campaign to lead the Progressive Conservative Party, with supporters in Edmonton. Below: Anti-union “liberty conservative” Derek Fildebrandt, NDP Premier Rachel Notley, and Athabasca University Labour Studies Professor Bob Barnetson.
It was probably his “math is hard” moment in a televised debate with NDP Leader Rachel Notley more than any other blunder that signaled the end of premier Jim Prentice’s 2015 election campaign – and the beginning of the end, as it turned out, for Alberta’s once mighty Progressive Conservative Dynasty.
But in many respects, Mr. Prentice – who died tragically in an airplane crash on Oct. 13 last year – really could do the math.
Consider his response to the effort by Alison Redford’s government, continued by premier Dave Hancock after Redford was pushed out by her own PC caucus in March 2014, to pass restrictive and unconstitutional labour laws attacking the rights of unionized public sector employees.
The Alberta Legislature passed the Public Sector Services Continuation Act in December 2013. Strikes by public sector employees were already illegal in Alberta – unconstitutionally so, as it would have eventually been ruled. But the Continuation Act provided for disproportionately heavy penalties for unions, their members, and members of the public who so much as advocated illegal strikes.
Needless to say, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would eventually have had something to say about that, but until Mr. Prentice was chosen as PC Party leader in the fall of 2014, the government tried mightily to fend off union legal challenges.
But unlike Ms. Redford and Mr. Hancock, apparently, Mr. Prentice was able to do the math.
That is, he could calculate the cost to the provincial treasury of fighting a lost constitutional cause in the courts and to the credibility of the PC Party of attacking the fundamental free speech rights of all Albertans.
He had also been made painfully aware of the number of gainfully employed, taxpaying public employees visiting their Tory MLAs’ constituency offices to say they would never again vote for a government they had long supported if it persisted in attacking their pensions, a foolish policy pushed by Doug Horner, Ms. Redford’s and Mr. Hancock’s minister of finance.
Premier Prentice sensibly pulled the plug on both misconceived policies.
On March 19, 2015, he met with the leaders of Alberta’s public sector unions and announced his government would repeal the act as quickly as possible as part of an effort to “reset the table” with the unions. The act became history on March 25.
It turned out this was too late to turn back the Orange tide that swept over Alberta on May 5. But my guess is if Mr. Prentice had done the right thing sooner, or if he had waited a year to call an election as voters wanted him to do, we would still have a PC Government in Alberta – and the Wildrose Party would be saying the same things about the PCs the Wildrose-clone United Conservative Party is saying about the government of NDP Premier Rachel Notley today.
Consider in this light the animus toward public sector unions and the rights of their members by Wildrose/UCP Finance Critic and busy Twitter artiste Derek Fildebrandt, the Old Faithful of Alberta political bozo eruptions.
Lately, Mr. Fildebrandt has been advocating making operation of unions essentially illegal by imposing an extreme form of the “right to work” legislation common in the states of the American South.
A former stunt organizer for the anti-union, anti-public-service Canadian Taxpayers Federation who styles himself a “liberty conservative” in the manner of his Republican heroes, Mr. Fildebrandt tries to pass off this attack on the rights of working people as a “defence” of their “freedom.”
Under Mr. Fildebrandt’s proposal, which may or may not be part of a campaign to lead the UCP, picketing during labour disputes would effectively be outlawed. No one who benefited from a union’s bargaining would be required to pay union dues. First-contract arbitration, which has worked well for decades in other jurisdictions but was only this year brought in by Ms. Notley’s NDP in Alberta, would be ended to allow employers once again to refuse to bargain in good faith to block unionization. And by the sound of his proposals, workers would also be proscribed from joining any national or province-wide union.
Mr. Fildebrandt would also ban any activities by unions – including, presumably, charitable donations, Christmas parties for the kiddies, and inconvenient lawsuits in support of their members’ rights – not specifically related to labour relations … as defined by Derek Fildebrandt, of course.
Like many right-wing extremists, the founder of his Ottawa university’s “Reagan-Goldwater Society” also obviously has a bee in his bonnet about unionized teachers, and so proposes breaking up the Alberta Teachers Association into a declawed union and a professional regulatory body.
Thanks to recent rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada, much of this nonsense is as certain to be ruled as unconstitutional as Ms. Redford’s crazy assault on the free speech rights of Albertans.
Just the same, it’s worth thinking about what the effect of Mr. Fildebrandt’s proposals would actually be.
Remember, as Athabasca University Labour Studies Professor Bob Barnetson recently observed, that the current union-management legal regime in Canada came about as a result of the desire of employers in the aftermath of the Great Depression to reduce disruptions in their workplaces – not to mention the determination of Ottawa to defang the genuinely revolutionary instincts of significant parts of the then-still-class-conscious working class.
The modern model of labour relations has largely succeeded in both goals.
“Employers agreed to the current legislative arrangement – which Derek seems intent on overthrowing – because it brought economic stability and political legitimacy,” Dr. Barnetson explained. “This policy throws this long-standing accommodation of workers’ interests out the window.”
“These policies would return labour law to the 1940s – a time characterized by widespread and economically disruptive strikes and voters politically turning toward the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP,” he observed.
The result? “Seeking to financially and logistically cripple unions, except employer-dominated unions, would force workers to strike for basic contract provisions,” Dr. Barnetson concluded. So there would be more strikes. Many workers, I suspect, would also contemplate much more than just striking.
Professor Barnetson asked: “Why would anyone advance policy that substantially and needlessly increases strike activity?”
Most probably in Mr. Fildebrandt’s case because it’s good politics to try to tie the NDP to unions – as Stephen Harper attempted through the use of similar laws in federal jurisdiction that were recently repealed by the Liberal Government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Also, because it’s the way to the hearts of the most extreme parts of the UCP’s base – which, as with the Republican Party in the United States, increasingly dominates the conservative movement in Canada.
One also suspects that the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has emboldened extremists like Mr. Fildebrandt, leading them to believe there is a new kind of political math, in which it doesn’t really matter if their policies add up, constitutionally speaking.
I imagine if he were starting his campus club today, Mr. Fildebrandt would call it the Reagan-Trump Society.