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
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.
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?