Conservatives of Convenience: Not all unions buy the logic behind joining the "Conservative Collective"

When I heard the news last week that several well-known union leaders and labour organizations were encouraging their members to get involved in the Tory leadership race - and in some cases, actually buying party memberships for them - my most prominent emotion was frustration.

What a sad commentary, I thought, on the state of democracy in our province: that people who are obviously not Conservatives feel the only way they can influence public policy is by joining a party they don't really believe in.

Don't get me wrong. On one level, I understand why people like Alberta Teachers Association President Frank Bruseker and leaders from the Alberta Building Trades Council did what they did.

After all, the Alberta Conservatives have been in power for more than 35 years and, if recent polls are any indication, there's every reason to believe they will win the next election as well.

So, if these are the people most likely to form and lead the next provincial government, why not cozy up to them?

But, from where I sit, there are at least two major problems with this line of thinking - the first being the not-so-subtle acceptance of the notion that Alberta is one-party state.

The phrase "one-party state" may make some people feel uncomfortable - but just look at the record.

Despite all the trappings of democracy (parties, elections, Question Period etc.) Alberta has for generations been missing one of the key ingredients for a true democracy - and that ingredient is change.

During the long reign of the Alberta Tories, provinces like B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario have seen their government change multiple times.

Change and democracy go hand in hand. When you lose the hope for change I would argue you lose democracy itself.

Of course Conservatives and their supporters don't see it that way.

As the leader of Alberta's largest association of unions, I too have been courted by Tory leadership hopefuls who have pedalled what I refer to as the "Borg Argument."

"Alberta has always been and always will be Conservative," they whisper. "The only real democracy that exists in the province is democracy within our party. If you want to be heard, join us. Resistance is futile."

Well, I for one am not prepared to accept the notion that it's politically futile to exercise my democratic rights outside the Tory tent. And, to take the Star Trek metaphor one step further, I'm not prepared to accept that the only way you can make a difference in this province is to be "assimilated" into the Conservative Collective.

Unfortunately, whether they intended to do it or not, that's the message that Bruseker and the others union leaders are sending both to their members and the general public.

By joining the Tories, they are saying, at least implicitly, that resistance IS futile; and, as a result, they're making it more likely that the Tory one-party state will hang on, no matter how unhealthy that might be for our democracy.

That brings me to the second reason why I won't be using my office to encourage involvement in the Tory leadership race.

While I whole-heartedly support and defend the right of individual union members to belong to the parties of their choice, I oppose giving institutional support to the Conservatives because they are NOT really the "big tent" party they're pretending to be.

Union members should not forget that this is the same party and the same government that rolled back public sector wages in the mid-90s and imposed hiring freezes on nurses, teachers and other public servants - freezes that are now coming back to haunt us all.

It is the same government that has repeatedly thumbed its nose at public opinion and pushed the envelope on private health care. It is the same government that has consistently under-funded our schools, municipalities and post-secondary institutions; and which has left a legacy of huge infrastructure, social and environmental deficits.

It is also the same government that decided to essentially give our oil sands away at a ridiculous royalty rate of one penny on the dollar; and which continues to turn a blind on energy companies that want to mine our oil sands but have no intention of upgrading it or refining it here.

Finally, this is the same government that created and maintains the most restrictive, pro-employer labour laws in the country; and which has not be afraid to use its legislative power to intervene and tip the playing field even more dramatically in favour of employers - as they did in the case of the Horizon oil sands project near Fort McMurray.

After looking at this sorry record - and recognizing that five of the nine contenders for the Tory leadership were Klein-era cabinet ministers - I would argue that the Tories simply haven't earned the support of working people in this province.

Sure, we can wine and dine candidates. We can write cheques to the party. We might even be able to extract a few vague promises.

But, our money will never be more than a drop in the bucket compared to the flood coming from high-rolling corporate donors. And even more importantly, money and memberships will never trump the deeply ingrained ideological distrust most Conservatives feel for unions and the issues we care about.

At the end of the day that's the most frustrating part of this whole affair: the Tories know who they are - and they're not a "worker-friendly" party. There is no reason to believe that a few memberships sold here and there will make the leopard change its spots.

Calgary Herald, Sat Oct 21, 2006, Page A29
By Gil McGowan, AFL President

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.