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Former AUPE president Dan MacLennan elected to party post to get Alberta Liberals back on radar

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Dan MacLennan

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I don't know if Alberta's NDP leaders are worried by Dan MacLennan becoming the provincial Liberal Party’s vice-president in change of constituencies, but if you ask me they should be.

With the former public sector union leader elected to be in charge of that particular file at the party's annual meeting in Red Deer on the weekend, it's very hard for me to imagine the Liberals not running candidate in every Alberta riding in the next provincial election.

For obvious reasons, a full slate of Liberals wouldn't be a good development for either the Alberta New Democrats, who now form the government of Alberta, or the Progressive Conservatives, since all three of those parties are likely to be going after the same large and fickle group of centrist voters in the general election expected circa 2019.

It's a possibility because if MacLennan knows anything, it's retail politics -- which you have to be good at to succeed as leader of an organization like the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, of which he was president from 1997 to 2006.

He's also a terrific organizer. He was at AUPE's helm after the brutal public sector cuts under PC premier Ralph Klein in the mid-1990s, when membership hit a low ebb of about 32,000. MacLennan saw it more than double on his watch, and arguably the momentum he created has contributed to the union's continued growth since then. AUPE now has well over 80,000 members.

Journalists loved the guy -- to the annoyance of many other Alberta union leaders, he was the voice of labour in the province as far as media were concerned.

I speak from some personal knowledge when I say the former Alberta jail guard -- who is known as "Buff" to all of his friends and many of his detractors -- is a remarkable character disinclined to back away from controversy or a fight. I was hired as AUPE's communications director in 2000 right after the Calgary Herald strike and worked closely with MacLennan until he unexpectedly stepped aside in 2006 to take a job as a senior executive for a construction company. No one had ever heard of a union president making a career move like that before. Nowadays, he's executive director of the Alberta Construction Safety Association.

MacLennan is known as Buff because as a young man, he was extremely heavy -- more than 400 pounds. Bariatric surgery and an iron will made him the slim and distinguished-looking man he is today. The U.S. Air Force's B-52 bomber is also called "Buff," and for the same reason -- this is a family blog, so you'll have to look it up for yourself, which you can do here.

MacLennan's leadership at AUPE was controversial in labour circles because a significant part of the membership growth during his tenure was the result of "raiding" -- persuading members of other unions to join AUPE.

As blogger Dave Cournoyer pointed out, this led to AUPE's suspension from the National Union of Public and General Employees in 2001 -- although you can trust me when I say that wouldn't have happened if MacLennan hadn't wanted it to. The formal split with the "House of Labour" came in 2006, when AUPE disaffiliated from NUPGE, and thus from the Canadian Labour Congress and the Alberta Federation of Labour. There have been two AUPE presidents since, but it has never been back.

MacLennan was also controversial in labour circles because he didn't support the NDP. The native of Hamilton, Ont., was a liberal to the core, federally and provincially -- although in his union heyday he confessed to me he'd been asked to run by every Canadian political party except the Bloq Quebecois.

Another aspect of MacLennan's success at AUPE was that fact that, while he wasn't shy of a fight, the people he fought with often ended up liking him. That was certainly the case with Klein, whose unexpectedly warm relationship with MacLennan helped AUPE in negotiations more than once and scared the beejeepers out of the government's senior civil servants, who never knew when they were about to get a call from the Premier's Office asking about one of the bees in MacLennan's bonnet.

MacLennan says he met Klein when he lived in his Calgary riding and took up a fellow constituent's plea for health policies to be changed so her gravely ill son could be covered for the medicine he needed if he was treated at home. They hit it off. The child was treated at home.

Later they were famously photographed playing golf together at a fund-raising tournament -- it was a fluke, teams were chosen by lot, but the legend grew.

When health-care workers struck illegally in May 2000, Klein told reporters at a western premier's conference in Brandon, Man., that the AUPE members were "good people" and he hoped they got a deal. This didn't exactly help the hardline health-care bargainers were trying to take in negotiations.

The deal that ended the illegal walkout brought Licensed Practical Nurses a 16 per cent pay increase -- and included a provision that all union members except MacLennan would be covered by an amnesty.

It certainly didn't hurt his re-election chances when MacLennan went to court expecting to be sent to jail. In the event, he didn't have to go -- which may have averted another wildcat strike by his fellow jail guards, who were also AUPE members -- although the union did pay a fine of $400,000, said at the time to be the highest in Canadian history.

The Klein government amalgamated public health-care union locals in 2003, AUPE and other unions had to take part in run-off votes in many health regions. In the thick of that campaign, a cow in Northern Alberta was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as "mad cow disease."

MacLennan had the kind of strategic mind that saw the advantage for AUPE in the crisis that struck Alberta farms when the U.S. Government closed the border to Canadian beef and 40 countries followed suit. He told me AUPE would be organizing barbecues serving Alberta beef at every rural hospital in the province to support the province's beleaguered farmers ... and I was the guy who had to buy the burgers. He'd shrewdly realized almost every AUPE member in those communities had a relative on a farm -- if they didn't live on one themselves.

As I discovered that summer, and as Earl's Restaurants learned this spring, it's sometimes harder to find Alberta beef here in Alberta than you might imagine.

The point of the story is that AUPE won every one of those votes.

Later MacLennan was asked by another Tory Premier, Ed Stelmach, to sit on a panel looking into health-care policy.

Right now, the Alberta Liberals are on life support. I don't know if MacLennan has the power to jolt them back to life. But if I were an organizer for any other party, I'd sure worry about that.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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