Big union campaign deflated by reality

It's tough enough running a public sector union in a province like Alberta, where fat cats get a pass and working stiffs the straight-arm.

So when the provincial government's latest budget yanks the carpet out from under your fear and loathing campaign, what do you do?

You claim victory - sort of.

Organized labour and its allies crafted a coalition dubbed Join Together Alberta and took it across the province, holding public hearings to pre-emptively protest what was expected to be a slash and burn blueprint.

It could be the biggest such group to take on the status quo in Alberta history.

The coalition insists it is ecstatic with the turnout in Tory or possibly Wildrose heartlands.

"We were bringing in extra tables and chairs," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.

That was before the Feb. 9 budget was handed down prior to the final few townhalls, which took the wind out of the campaign's sails.

"Attendance was down a little bit because the cuts were not as deep as we expected," said McGowan.

While the JTA attracted 200 people in Lethbridge prior to Feb. 9, it managed no more than that in Calgary and Edmonton following budget day, said the unionist.

The coalition had fully expected the government to placate the surging Wildrose by slicing deeply into programs.

But while there were cuts to 14 departments, the savings were transferred to health care and education.

"The budget is something of a victory for the coalition - I'd like to think it had something to do with the position of people like us," said McGowan.

I'm not so sure about that, but there is a certain irony in seeing government minds focused by an insurgency on the right delivering spending to the partial satisfaction of the left.

Ideological purity pales against peoples' desire for accessible health care, hockey rinks, passable roads and decent schools.

McGowan says as much himself, almost sounding like the unlikeliest ally Danielle Smith ever had.

"There's nothing like nervous politicians to get them to listen," he says.

Some Wildrosers even showed up at the JTA townhalls, says McGowan, and left uncertain about their political loyalties.

But that was before the budget.

And now, isn't there a complacency - and a renewal of the time honoured-cynicism regarding union motivations?

"We're involved in the coalition partly because union jobs are at stake," admits McGowan.

The presence of so much labour in such activism could well detract from its credibility, he concedes.

"Would it be more effective if citizens rose up and organized their own groups? Sure, but we're the only ones with the wherewithall," said McGowan.

"If we weren't involved, there probably wouldn't be a campaign at all."

He's right - it's Alberta.

As it is, the AFL's membership base won't be hugely affected by the budget, he notes, but the JTA's efforts will continue.

Appearances must be upheld.

But this group has been mostly reduced to warning of budget axe time bombs down the road.

The spectre is raised of a repeat of the People with Developmental Disabilities blindsiding in this year's third quarter.

One of their arguments - that the sustainability fund should preclude spending cuts - actually compliments the government they hold in such suspicion.

McGowan says the JTA will offer a punchline to all this, sometime.

But inevitable, he says, is the need, even the realistic prospect of a "viable left-wing alternative" to replicate the success of the right's Wildrose Alliance.

In Alberta, that smacks of owning a podium too far.

Calgary Sun, Thurs Feb 25 2010
Byline: Bill Kaufmann

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