Unions divided on which party to support in election

CALGARY — As the Tories and Wildrose parties fire off accusations over how the other intends to manage public services, Alberta's unions are now dividing between those willing to endorse a party and those who are not.

Some groups, like the Canadian Union of Public Employees (backing the NDP) and the Calgary Police Association (behind the Tories) are making their views well known.

And the Alberta Federation of Labour has a telephone push poll on health care where president Gil McGowan scolds the PCs and warns against a Wildrose plan to "destroy medicare as we know it."

The automated calls are drawing ire of the Wildrose, which says it has no plans to privatize the system. It says it will file a complaint, and Elections Alberta is already looking into the poll for possible violations of third-party advertising rules.

But some of the province's biggest unions, including the large Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, are not endorsing a party or wading into the same type of antagonism, despite the heated rhetoric and one of most competitive provincial election in four decades.

The onrush of negative, union-backed advertising faced by Premier Ed Stelmach leading up to the 2008 election has not been repeated heading to the April 23 vote.

Mount Royal University political analyst David Taras said a combination of new, third-party advertising rules and a more cautious wait-and-see approach is making for a quieter union presence than four years ago.

"They're being very careful," Taras said. "There isn't this onslaught."

The Wildrose has pledged to cut the number of senior managers and push money into front-line services, something backed by the AUPE.

However, the union says the plan to freeze wages for all public employees until the province gets back into surplus is a non-starter.

The Tories have accused their Wildrose counterparts of planning to cap spending to the extent that health care and education will suffer.

But the PCs have faced scrutiny from the Alberta Medical Association, which has criticized some of Redford's health care plans.

Meanwhile, the NDP accuses the PCs of planning cuts of their own by privatizing certain services. The Liberals have said they want to slash wasteful spending.

AUPE president Guy Smith said he doesn't fear whatever government comes next, largely because the union is far better organized than when the public service got a bruising during deep cuts under former premier Ralph Klein in the 1990s.

But if the Wildrose wins, Smith said the party will need some time to get its feet wet in government, and is urging them to hold back on any purge of upper management at the civil service.

"If they clean those out, then there's going to be a lot of uncertainty and instability in the public sector in services already a little fragile, as it is," Smith said.

In this city, the Calgary Police Association has endorsed the Tories.

Association president John Dooks called PC Leader Alison Redford "gutsy" for introducing various legislation, including new penalties for drivers with a blood-alcohol level between 0.05 and 0.08.

"She's shown the courage to do what was right when (it) was needed, not just what was popular," Dooks said.

But he said it's difficult to gauge what kind of sway the endorsement might have.

In the 2010 municipal election, the association got behind Ric McIver in the mayoral race. McIver was ultimately defeated by Naheed Nenshi, who at one point in the campaign got into a spat with the police chief over policing costs.

The Alberta Federation of Labour is spending roughly $20,000 on an automated poll, where households are asked if they support the Wildrose health care plan.

If the listener indicates no, a recording of AFL president Gil McGowan tells listeners they may be "justifiably angry" with the PCs over of bed shortages and doctor intimidation, and warns against the Wildrose, which he said will only bring "major cuts" and "corporate, for-profit care."

It's the type of phone call that has peeved both Tory and Wildrose supporters, but McGowan said his organization only wants Albertans to "think long a hard" about supporting either party.

"We're medicare advocates and we're deeply troubled by the positions on public health care that are being taken by both of our province's conservative parties," he said.

The poll has drawn the attention of Elections Alberta, which is taking a hard look at whether it breaches any legislation.

"We just like to look at the facts, and the allegations, and see what contraventions, if any, there are to the legislation before we go into a full investigation," Elections Alberta spokesman Drew Westwater said.

Calgary Herald, Wed Apr 18 2012
Byline: Richard Cuthbertson

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