Probably more than a few politically alert Albertans choked on their post-prandial drinks last night when they noticed a tweet from the Building Trades of Alberta mentioning that Travis Toews had just dropped by their Edmonton office for a friendly chat.
According to the tweet, the BTA officers at the afternoon meeting complained about at least one part of the tendentiously named Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act, likely unconstitutional 2020 UCP legislation that heaps red tape on unions and tries to make it difficult for working people or organize to bargain collectively.
The message thanked Alberta’s former finance minister for listening “to concerns over recent labour leg that hinders our ability to donate to communities we live & work in through charities & non profits,” one of the many negative impacts of Bill 32, as the law is better known.
Mr. Toews, of course, is now the United Conservative Party’s establishment candidate to take over from Premier Jason Kenney next fall and as such stands a good chance of inheriting the job and then having to face off against NDP Opposition Leader and former premier Rachel Notley in the next general election.
Given the harsh rhetoric about unions from UCP circles for most of the past three years under Mr. Kenney’s leadership, though, this news will probably put some folks right off their eggs and bacon this morning in both union and UCP circles.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess, and Mr. Toews had someone pick up the phone and call BTA’s officials to see if they were up for a meeting. That someone was probably Spruce Grove-Stoney Plain MLA Searle Turton, named “private-sector union liaison” by the Kenney Cabinet in May 2020, who tagged along to yesterday’s get-together.
The folks at the Building Trades, obviously, said yes.
This kind of thing isn’t exactly unheard of in politics, of course. Eight building trades unions endorsed Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party during that province’s election campaign in May, causing bitter division in the labour movement and undoubtedly helping Mr. Ford win a second term.
And back in the day, Alberta building trades unions had senior officials with PC cards in their pockets and Conservative MLAs’ numbers in their Rolodexes – a practice they felt helped keep the worst ideas of anti-union construction employer lobby groups from becoming law.
Alert readers, too, will recall that not long before the 2015 provincial election, PC premier Jim Prentice met with public-sector labour leaders, promised not to roll back their members’ wages, and agreed to repeal controversial legislation that would have restricted union activity. In the event, that gesture didn’t prevent an NDP victory on voting day.
And back before the 2012 election, then Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith – now one of Mr. Toews’s rivals for the UCP leadership – called on some public sector union leaders looking for support, or at least neutrality in her campaign against PC premier Alison Redford.
Still, the UCP has been so relentless and self-righteous in its attacks on unions under Mr. Kenney’s leadership that Mr. Toews’s social call has to be a surprise.
Some Building Trades leaders may have gotten the impression the candidate was unhappy about the red tape created for them by Bill 32. But it’s hard to believe that as minister of finance directing negotiations with public sector unions Mr. Toews didn’t know exactly what is in the legislation, which was foreshadowed by the UCP platform on which he campaigned.
A UCP government, the platform promised in 2019, would “protect workers from being forced to fund political parties and causes without explicit opt-in approval.”
And now he considers restrictions on donations to charitable causes by unions to be red tape? This seems unlikely.
Building trades unions weren’t the only folks Mr. Toews was wooing yesterday.
In the afternoon, he jumped aboard the anti-vaccination bandwagon that seems to be carrying most serious UCP leadership candidates now, tweeting a message that falsely claimed Ottawa says two vaccine doses are no longer enough, and adding that he says “enough is enough.”
Calling public safety measures to control COVID-19 “meddling in people’s private lives,” Mr. Toews has now aligned his message with the screechy and paranoid anti-vaxx rhetoric of Brian Jean’s and Ms. Smith’s campaigns.
“Campaigning for Premier on messages opposing vaccines for a highly transmissible virus is, perhaps, not a strong signal of leadership,” University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe observed coolly in response.
“Toews proves he’s just as extreme as the rest,” scoffed Ms. Notley’s chief of staff, Jeremy Nolais. “No wonder your campaign is on life support.”