Post author John Ashton, partly obscured by smoke, as he flipped burgers at the Edmonton & District Labour Council’s Labour Day BBQ on Sept 2, and isn’t that Ray Martin walking past in the background? (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

John Ashton has served as a staff member on 26 NDP campaigns. He is co-author with former Alberta NDP leader Ray Martin of “Made in Alberta: The Ray Martin Story.” In this guest post published while your blogger is at a conference, Mr. Ashton argues the report on Alberta’s fiscal situation by Janice MacKinnon and other members of her panel represents a declaration of war on organized labour by Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party, and that labour needs to think of new ways to meet the challenge. DJC

By John Ashton

“There is a partly justified criticism that peacetime generals are always fighting the last war instead of the next one.” – Dallas Morning News editorial, 1937

Fiscal panel chair Janice MacKinnon (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

Most people who become labour activists get their start on a picket line. They get taught a very simple set of terms of engagement. The boss is treating us bad. If they stop working, and block the delivery truck or the scab labour, they can win better treatment.

And that’s what happened. Sometimes it was quick, sometimes it took years. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But everyone knew that how the war was fought.

A very large war has been declared on Sept. 3. The target is Alberta’s public-sector workers. An allegedly disgruntled former NDP politician came to a podium and announced that the almost every conceivable attack that could possibly happen to public sector worker should be carried out by the Government of Alberta. This assault can start next month in the form of the first United Conservative Party budget.

The evidence to support this assault from a policy standpoint was laughable. But this wasn’t really a policy proposal. It was a statement of values.

The MacKinnon Report on Alberta’s Finances gets worse for public sector workers the further one gets into the details. It demands the abandonment of collective bargaining. Prior to the last election, few predicted an assault this grandiose could be conceived, and those who did predict it were not believed.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Furthermore, the report dares the labour movement to strike, and indicates that back-to-work legislation is practically already drafted. There’s no question a conflict is desired.

The United Conservative Party’s place in government is assured to 2023, and probably well beyond that. Their ideological convictions are solid. This has been planned for a very long time.

The UCP have all communications resources of the Government of Alberta. Their party is financed to the hilt. And dozens of right-wing non-governmental organizations will fling any amount of resources to support them.

Moreover, the UCP is fine with schools being closed and hospitals being ground to a halt. That’s crucial to their messaging that these workers are unaffordable and not interested in serving Albertans. And they’ll just legislate members back to work and stick labour leaders with multi-million dollar fines if the legislation is defied.

They do this because the UCP believes that they have the unwavering support of the majority of Albertans. As the party leadership sees it, 55 per cent of Albertans voted for this and can be kept on side, even with a bit of temporary inconvenience.

Labour leaders and members are now left to consider how to plan for this war. There will be no trucks to stop, and not many scab workers to yell at. Where’s the picket line this time?

It’s not outside the Legislature Building. It’s almost a reflex that when the government threatens anything objectionable, a rally in front of the Legislature gets planned. Occasionally, some would even try to sneak into the building. (To what end is anyone’s guess).

The Legislature has plaza in front of it specifically designed to make crowds look small, and conservative politicians of the past used to watch, laugh, and then go in front of a camera and describe union members as unstable hoodlums. Rallies might make the members feel inspired, but won’t do much to change the UCP’s plans.

It’s not in the Alberta media. Postmedia is hiring editors with the goal of supporting Conservative politicians on any issue they want. CBC is defunded and neutered. Commercial radio is bursting with right-wing mouthpieces. Trying to challenge the government with an interview or press release is futile, at best.

The new picket line is the mind of the Albertan. These conflicts are no longer a conversation between worker and management. Rather, it’s a conflict for hearts and mind of Albertans, especially those who voted UCP in April.

The UCP understands this already. They have contrived the theatre of the MacKinnon Report to that purpose.

Does labour understand the picket line of the Albertan mind? Do they know where to fight this battle?

The first picket line is likely sitting in your pocket. Or you may even be reading this on it. It’s your phone.

Albertans, like most of the rest of the industrialized world, get their information and opinions from what they see on their smartphone, through a variety of platforms liker Facebook or Google. Most union agree it’s a tool to mobilize and communicate internally, but few have tried to use it for communicating externally to the public.

This doesn’t mean tweeting press releases. It means investing funds in putting messaging in the path of those uninvolved or unengaged in the labour movement and telling them the UCP plan threatens their community. It means going to the conservative demographics and planting cognitive dissonance.

If you doubt this, look at how Conservatives used social media so easily and effectively to build outrage at the previous NDP government. Online posts filled with fabrications stoked frothing outrage at WCB protection for farm workers, a new provincial park, or even the concept that it’s not such a great idea to drive your ATV through a stream.

It was easy to stir up Albertans on a lie. Why couldn’t they be roused by an actual threat to their schools, health care, and jobs?

The second picket line is on the doorstep. It’s easy to believe the lie that public sector workers are lazy. It’s harder to believe the public sector worker talking to you face-to-face about the threat to your community.

Labour is fully capable of getting 2,000 members to a rally to claim they’re being treated unfairly. But they get 20 to canvass a conservative neighbourhood with a petition to keep school class sizes down?

Which brings us to the final picket line: The MLA constituency office. The UCP MLA inside that office is convinced that they won’t face consequences from losing the support of a small amount of disgruntled union members in their constituencies.

They have a good reason for this. Out of 64 UCP MLA’s, 57 won their seat with more than 10 per cent of the vote. A rally at the Legislature in Edmonton won’t convince a Calgary or rural MLA that their seat is endangered. If a union must have rallies, go to the rural constituencies offices where they don’t expect you.

Demonstrating (pun intended) that the people they’re enraging aren’t limited to a small group of union activists far away is about the only way to rattle the nerve of these handpicked UCP loyalists.

Conservatives have always been ready to rethink how they fight labour wars. Will labour try new tactics to win the next war instead of fighting an old one?

Join the Conversation


  1. The one major difference now is that the UCP cannot rely on the fossil fuel industry to make it’s supporters look the other way while it dismantles social services, health care and education. Those same workers will be feeling the pinch just as hard.

  2. Good points John.
    The first line is the written word. Well crafted, well researched and well articulated arguments written, and posted, everywhere where everybody can read them. This is a team effort and editors are especially important.
    Second line are those arguments spoken out loud and in person by someone with impressive articulation and presence.

    Only somebody already on the team will forgive bad spelling and poor writing or a sloppy-looking, disorganised and rambling person on their doorstep. If you want to capture the enemy you must be swift, sure and accurate.
    Competence has never, in my experience, been a consideration for Albertans; in this fight it will be nakedly on display. As ever, those that have it and can most effectively display it will win.

  3. If you want to fight on the platforms created to serve the gig economy and the insane valuation accorded to so called innovators? Join with the marching hopeless, as they fail monthly, to even meet the basic needs. There is only one way to battle the travesty.

  4. If I’m not mistaken, and I may well be, “labour” and unions in Alberta actually refer mostly to provincial public servants working in various areas of the economy, from teachers to health care workers and so on. Farmers apparently want to be able to injure themselves and their workers far away from public gaze because they’re the experts in their fields and know best, plus they’re mostly UCP supporters. Other provinces have not caved in to this blind set of nonsense, but there you go. It’s Alberta, where the rugged undereducated individual knows better than experts on accident safety, procedures and so forth, or any other topic for that matter.

    If the public servants get trashed by Jason the mason, just because voices in his head from a lifetime of ideological nonsense and no actual work tell him it’s god’s wish, I repeat what I’ve said here earlier. We need more nurses and docs down home in the Atlantic Region. Leave dystopia if you have a brain and want to get on enjoying life far away from right wing horse manure of the Fraser Institute and MacKinnon panel variety, so lovingly embraced by the UCP and a majority of voters. There are people far away who won’t disparage your talents and belittle you for crass political purposes as seems to occur in the dystopia in which you currently reside.

  5. The public service in Alberta has been paid rich rewards for decades, in terms of compensation and benefits. Now, at a time when the private sector has been carrying all the weight of economic hard times, it is time for the public sector to pay their dues , in terms of lower wages and reduced staffing levels. The pie is smaller so everyone gets less. Economic reality bites and the public service are just going to have to deal with it. Your NDP friends can’t help you now.

    1. Some facts and figures might help your argument, sir. Just one would be a vast improvement.

      I’m curious: do those not in the public sector actually wish harm on their public sector neighbours and relatives? Is it a tit-for-tat, “we suffered so now it’s your turn” attitude? Or is there an underlying feeling that the people who teach the province’s children, heal the province’s sick, and run the province’s programs are truly less than in some way?

      At no point during the economic downturn did I wish harm on my friends and family who worked in the oil and gas sector. I never wrung my hands with glee as people were laid off and folks defaulted on their mortgages in droves. But it sure seems like when the shoe’s on the other foot, there’s no hesitation about cackling as “we get ours.” No doubt that when the stories start appearing about hardships, the comments will be full of “it’s about time” and “see how you like it.” And for what?

  6. I agree with this article . Very well presented. Kenney is a high conflict personality and my opinion is that he is dangerous to all workers and families of all stripes. What are the qualifications of J. McKinnon? Is she a qualified accountant or economist!

  7. The author puts his finger on it. The UCP won with overwhelming majorities, supported by a public who actively hate unions, and hold public sector workers in contempt. I don’t know what kind of organising can fix this…this is not some aberration, like Ford’s Ontario, which can be repaired at the next election. The problem is the electorate.

    I was never more thrilled when the NDP won in 2015; but even more than the ham-handed unification of the right, the NDP’s share of the popular vote declined in 2019. IT DECLINED. I left Alberta in 2006; I’m afraid I’d advise any public sector workers who can to do the same when the chance presents. Go somewhere you’ll be valued, or at least where you don’t have to participate in your own execution. Let the voters have their glibertarian oil-patch paradise. And don’t they wish they may like it.

  8. I suspect a part of Kenney’s strategy is to goad unions into doing something that will inconvenience or upset the public, reduce support for them and then legislate them back to work. I also suspect he can count on the “mainstream” media to back his positions, much as he has in the past. The National Post and its minion papers are reliably conservative. only offering at best only occasional and tentative mild criticism of anything conservative.

    It is bit of a mystery to me in how they still hold such a sway in influencing Alberta opinion in this era of social media. Anyone who wants to successfully challenge the UCP and its agenda will probably have do a bit of an end run around the Alberta mainstream media, but that was true at various times during the PC regime too. However, that is probably easier now in the era of social media.

    In the end, I suspect it will be the damage that Kenney causes to the quality of public services that will hurt his support most. Until then he may win the battles, but that is the important one he will probably lose.

  9. Or….how about an alternative scenario?

    In the middle of all this brohaha about Alberta becoming Russia 2.0. (Given that Kenney and Putin are roughly the same height, we can argue that they likely share a brain, too.) I propose another reality.

    Kenney has no interest in remaining in Alberta for as long as he can stand it. A man of such a lofty mission cannot spend too long hanging in the land of Wannabe Republicans, rabid drunkness, Meth, and loose women. (Which still leaves it a mystery why Kenney has not been able to snatch up a wife for himself among Alberta’s women of low expectations? But I digress.)

    The current federal election is in full swing and looks like it will be mercifully short. Andrew Scheer is trying to punch above his weight and is trying to offer an ambitious conservative agenda…but he’s putting everyone to sleep. The NDP and the Greens are engaged in mortal combat, which will destroy both of them. That leaves PMJT and the Liberals to pull a stunning victory, even greater than 2015. With Scheer embarrassed after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, he sulks away. This leaves Kenney to step up and offer himself as a worthy successor and a sure path to victory.

    All this should happen before the first anniversary of the UCP victory. Look forward to Jason Nixon being inserted into the premiership…without the bother of seeking a new mandate from Albertans. (He’s a lot taller than Kenney, but he still has despotic streak.)

  10. Yes, what shall we do? I agree with a lot of what you have to say, but you are wrong on two points:
    1) Threatening rural MLAs. The threats are hollow.
    2) Giving up on protests at the ledge. One-day protests *are* a waste of time. Ongoing Bill 6-style protests work.

  11. I would like to see the author’s thoughts revisited in the aftermath of so much upheaval from Covid-19, the collapse of oil prices, etc.

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