The real story on Bill 32 is NOT that unions spend money on politics; it’s that the UCP’s corporate supporters spend far more, and often don’t even bother to follow the rules
EDMONTON - What has the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) been spending its money on, really?
As it turns out, it’s not what you’ve been led to believe by the UCP as they attempt to justify Bill 32, their controversial and unprecedented attack on union free speech.
If you’ve been listening to Premier Kenney, Labour Minister Copping or any of the UCP’s so-called “issues managers,” you’ve no doubt heard them claim that the AFL has spent $1.8 million of members’ money over the last three years on “political campaigns designed to help the NDP.”
The actual story behind AFL’s campaigns is that our members WANT us to stand up for worker rights, pensions for all, decent wages, safe working conditions, child care, a diversified economy and many other issues. And, that’s exactly what we do.
The campaigns and public advocacy that the UCP smear as “political action” are really just examples of workers advocating for workers – through campaigns that have been developed and approved by workers themselves.
In 2017, for example, the AFL started a campaign called Unstack the Deck aimed at convincing the then-NDP government to bring Alberta labour laws and workplace safety laws into the Canadian mainstream.
Like all of our campaigns, the Unstack the Deck campaign was conceived by elected representatives from AFL unions and approved by delegates at the AFL convention. In other words, it was done democratically by union members, not at a the “whim of union bosses.”
Far from being a “partisan campaign to benefit the NDP,” the campaign was all about workers lobbying the government of the day for better labour laws and better workplace health and safety protections. It was also about educating the public about the need for reform and the benefits of more worker-friendly laws. In other words, exactly what you’d expect from a worker advocacy organization.
Similarly, for the past three years, the AFL has been running what we call the Fair Start campaign, which lobbied both the past NDP government and the current UCP government on the need for quality, accessible, universal child care. We also have on-going campaigns to promote and protect the $15 minimum wage and a campaign to promote workplace safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, these campaigns were approved through the labour movement’s internal systems of representative democracy.
Other than the Unstack the Deck Campaign, the biggest public advocacy campaigns run by the AFL over the past three years were, in increasing order of size: the Hands Off Our Pensions campaign, which has sought to pressure the government to back away from its plans to seize control of public-sector pensions and take Alberta out of the CPP; the Kenney’s Cuts campaign, which pushes back against cuts to education, health care and other important public services; and the Next Alberta Campaign, launched in the lead up to the provincial election, which sought to convince ALL political parties of the need to prepare our province for the unfolding global transition away from fossil fuels.
Again, all of these campaigns were designed to defend the interests of workers, not to advance the interests of the NDP.
And, again, all of these campaigns were conceived, developed and approved through the labour movement’s system of representative democracy. The spending was also transparent: audited statements were made available to all members who attended meetings or upon request.
The fact that the UCP categorizes all criticism and dissent as “NDP campaigning” is troubling – and profoundly undemocratic.
But that’s not the only thing that’s troubling.
When digging into the records on third-party political spending, the really surprising (and anger-inducing story) revelation is NOT that worker organizations have been running public campaigns on worker issues. On the contrary, we’ve been doing exactly what people would expect we should be doing on the public stage: standing up for the interests of workers, as defined by our own members and elected leaders. We’ve also been open, honest and transparent with our members, the public and the regulators at Elections Alberta.
What IS disturbing is what the corporate supporters of the UCP have been up to.
The first thing you notice when you look at the records is that pro-UCP corporate-sponsored groups spent far more on third-party political advertising over the past three years, and especially in the lead up to the provincial election, than the AFL. In the two years before the election, the biggest pro-UCP corporate players were the Alberta Advantage Fund, Alberta Can’t Wait, Shaping Alberta’s Future, Alberta Proud and the Merit Contractors. Collectively they spend $3.125 million on pre-election and election campaigning; much more than what was spent by the AFL.
The second thing you notice is that, unlike the AFL, these groups generally didn’t campaign on issues. Instead, they had one goal: attack the NDP and urge Albertans in the bluntest of possible terms to turf them. To be more specific, while the AFL was running a campaign urging ALL parties to acknowledge the looming energy transition and tell voters how they planned to prepare for it (the Next Alberta campaign), the pro-UCP PACs were blaring single-note denunciations of the NDP’s carbon tax.
The third thing that you notice when you look at third-party filings with Elections Alberta is that (with the exception of the anti-union Merit Shop contractors) all of the pro-UCP PACs were temporary and ephemeral in nature. Unlike the AFL which has been advocating for worker rights in Alberta since 1912, these groups were clearly set up for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to attack the NDP.
This is one reason AFL president Gil McGowan recently repeated the famous quote about the tactics used by right-wing propagandists: “accuse your enemies of what you are doing yourself.” The UCP accuses the AFL of simply being a front for the NDP, when in fact its an organization that existed long before the NDP was ever created and when it is also clear that it is, first and foremost, a representative worker advocacy group. The pro-UCP PAC, on the other hand, are much more clearly fronts for the UCP (evidence: they simply disappeared after the UCP won the election).
The fourth thing you notice about these groups is that they are funded by a relatively small number of wealthy individuals and corporations – and, in the case of the corporations, there is no evidence that they got permission of their shareholders for their activity. So, when the UCP says unions must now go back to individual members for approval of campaigns deemed “political” by UCP commissars, even though they already have robust internal systems of representative democracy, the contrast with the pro-UCP could not be clearer. Under the UCP's new rules, there will be more hoops for the already democratic labour movement to jump through; but no hoops at all for the pro-UCP groups who are secretive and undemocratic.
The final, and perhaps most important, thing that you notice about the list of pro-UCP third-party groups that have reported spending to Elections Alberta is who’s missing. Where is the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) which is running a very large and aggressive on-line data-mining operation, called Energy Citizens, that collects contact information and is sending out posts and emails that would clearly be helpful to the UCP?
Likewise, where are the filings from Canada Action, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Manning Centre, Alberta Proud or Rebel Media? All of these organizations are important parts of the UCP’s political ecosystem and echo chamber. All of them collectively spend what is likely millions of dollars each year pushing conservative messages on Albertans and collecting data on individuals that would be useful to the UCP. But, none of them report their spending; and none of them are required to prove that they’ve received permission from their shareholders or stakeholders to spend money on their shadowy political activities.
This, not the over-heated accusations thrown at the AFL and unions by the UCP’s so-called “issues managers,” is the real scandal. The political playing field is already dominated by corporate friends of the UCP. Now, through Bill 32, they aim to disarm one of the only groups in society, the labour movement, that can stand up to them. So much for “restoring balance.”
Quote from AFL President Gil McGowan
“The real story here is not that unions are spending money to stand up for working people on the political stage. No, the real story is that the UCP is imposing cumbersome rules and restriction on their enemies; rules that they are NOT imposing on their allies. The labour movement already has a robust internal system of representative democracy, but the UCP says that’s not enough. The corporate side, on the other hand, never even attempts to get approval from their shareholders for political spending. But the UCP says that’s fine. At the same time, the record clearly shows that corporations are spending far more than unions on campaigns aimed at influencing government and voters. There is also evidence that many right-wing groups are not even bothering to follow the rules. When you put all of this together, it becomes crystal clear that Bill 32 is not about transparency or accountability, and it’s certainly not about restoring balance. Instead, it’s about tying unions in knots, silencing the voice of workers on the political stage, and tipping the balance of political power in Alberta in favour of the UCP and their corporate friends. This is what authoritarians do. It’s also how democracy dies.”
Director of Communications, AFL