Alberta Premier Alison Redford gets warm reception in union lions’ den

Alison Redford speaks to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ convention in Edmonton yesterday. (AUPE photo.) Below: Ms. Redford with AUPE President Guy Smith. Is she trying to build an alliance with public service unions?

It’s tempting to say Alberta Premier Alison Redford walked boldly into the lions’ den yesterday and emerged unscathed – whether or not what she found there resembled a room full of pussycats.

There are certainly those in some corners of the labour movement who will think Premier Redford’s welcome to the annual convention of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the 80,000-member public service workers’ union that is not affiliated to the Canadian Labour Congress, was entirely too congenial.

And it’s true it’s unlikely this was a performance Opposition Leader Danielle Smith could have managed before the same crowd, her evocative first name notwithstanding.

Premier Redford brought a warm message, and in return she was received warmly by the 1,000 or more people in the hall at Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre. Warmly enough, indeed, that some people there might have imagined they heard purring.

But there is something subtler and more intriguing going on, methinks, as Ms. Redford now appears to want to try to maintain the informal and in some ways unlikely alliance her Progressive Conservative government built in the final days of last spring’s provincial election campaign with unionized public service workers such as civil servants, health care workers and teachers.

The view of traditionally progressive political parties and many labour leaders after last spring’s election was that public employees were naïve to be wooed by Ms. Redford into voting strategically for her PCs, and that the premier’s still-conservative party would quickly revert to form once it had its majority safely in place. As much has been said in this space.

It was just, back in those scary days when the way-out market-fundamentalist Wildrose Party was riding high in the polls, that the PCs seemed like a safe, reliable and possible refuge to a lot of good rank-and-file Alberta trade union members.

But here it is October with the first snow of the season flying – as it does almost without fail during AUPE’s annual convention – and Premier Redford is still courting union votes, and indeed seems to be cozying up to public service union leaders like AUPE President Guy Smith as well.

Hers was the first time in history a sitting Alberta premier had ever come calling at an AUPE convention, and as far as anyone can remember, any union convention. Her staff phoned up and asked if she could speak.

So this is starting to smack of a real effort to put up some bridges to the union movement, especially public sector unions – structures that are built to last.

In this regard, Ms. Redford’s charm offensive is reminiscent of the coalition departing Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty built with the union movement back when he was still pursuing a strategy that worked for him.

It was also foreshadowed by things said by some of the brighter PC party leaders back in premier Ed Stelmach’s day, including Mr. Stelmach himself, who seemed to be trying to move the party closer to the centre, notwithstanding pressure from the right by the Wildrose Party and market-fundamentalist Tory insiders like Ted Morton, the worst premier Alberta never had.

All this said, it would be a mistake to read too much into this. Ms. Redford is not a social democrat. But she does seem now committed to preserving public services in sectors of the economy traditionally served by public employees. This is a change from her privatization talk during the Conservative leadership campaign in 2011.

Ms. Redford’s short speech to AUPE yesterday – frequently punctuated by applause – was pretty much boilerplate. But it was friendly boilerplate.

“This is an opportunity for me to personally thank your members for the work they do every day across the province … with integrity, dedication and compassion,” she began.

If you were waiting for tough news after this friendly start – and with the government staring at a deficit and the Wildrosers howling about it, that seemed like a possibility – it never came. Instead, she went on to say “the work you do is central to our government’s vision” and to express other similar sentiments.

“I remain committed to balancing the budget in 2013-2014,” Ms. Redford stated. But “at the end of the day, Albertans look to their government to provide first-rate public services, and we won’t let them down.”

Ms. Redford also made an effort to reassure provincial employees about the implications for their workplaces of the province’s “results-based budgeting” scheme – “this isn’t as simple as spending less to meet some arbitrary target.” Click here to read the full text of Ms. Redford’s speech, from which she barely deviated.

At an informal news conference after her speech, Ms. Redford reconfirmed her support for public services: “Absolutely, and I made that very clear during the election and I haven’t at all changed my position. It’s fundamental.”

Now, there are those in Alberta – not necessarily people hostile to Ms. Redford’s stated position on public services – who think this could be a dangerous strategy from her perspective. After all, they say, you can’t keep the loyalty of budget hawks and market fundamentalists, traditional supporters of the Alberta PCs, and also win the hearts of public employees.

Maybe so. But Ms. Redford’s apparent public service strategy suggests she has figured out the Alberta electorate had changed from the days the Conservatives came to power and that the smart place to move is indeed the centre, not the far right.

The right-wing rump in her own party may scream, and the Wildrose Opposition will fulminate. But if Ms. Redford really can build and maintain an alliance with public service labour unions, whose rank and file members show clear signs of understanding the issues and at least knowing who their friends aren’t, it could go work out quite nicely for her.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

3 Comments on "Alberta Premier Alison Redford gets warm reception in union lions’ den"

  1. GQ says:

    Good write up Dave, but as a delegate my take was a bit different. AUPE members were respectful of the Premier, as they were in a previous convention when former Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier also addressed the gathering on behalf of the Wildrose Party.

    What struck me as I looked around the room was how delegates looked at each other at key parts of her speech with a range of quizzical expressions. At lunch I was sitting with delegates I have never met before I asked how others felt about the Premier’s speech. It was obvious that most did not trust the Premier’s statements, which is not hard to understand in an environment where union members have to file grievances to get reimbursed for $1.15 muffin while government executives claim business meals at the best restaurants.

    What AUPE Delegates were looking for was clarity on her leadership campaign platform where she wrote

    “Within six months, I want to identify services that can be transferred to community leadership or privatized.”

    Members got no clarity on this critical question and wonder if they should be looking for other work.

    What you did not write was the Premier took no questions from the floor, and if she did she might have heard the proverbial union lion roar, as evident by the delegates more negative comments that came well after the Premier left the room with her well-armed security detail.

  2. AS says:

    What’s the need to point out her security is well-armed? It’s not because she’s scared of union members. Those security guards aren’t strike-breakers, either. She’s one of the heads of government in this country, armed security is normal these days. It’s not against the public, it’s for worst-case scenarios. They aren’t there to be a barrier to public access, and I’ve never been stopped by then when I’ve been in the same room as her.

  3. Ken says:

    We can only hope Premier Redford’s visit to the AUPE convention indicates the grownups are now in charge and we will be spared further vandalism of public services and institutions.

    If her visit was more than just a public relations exercise then I almost feel sorry for the glib Ms. Smith who must contend with her caucus of adolescent devotees of Ayn Rand, cold war relics, and other fundamentalists, not to mention at least one convicted criminal.

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