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Calling for no wage hikes for public-sector unions a risky strategy for Alberta NDP

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Photo: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

Alberta's NDP Government can't say they weren't warned.

Back in the days when Brian Topp was a heavy hitter in the federal New Democratic Party, he wrote a book about how the NDP, Liberals and Bloc Quebecois almost toppled Stephen Harper's Conservative government in November 2008.

In How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot, published in 2010, the former federal NDP party president and second-place leadership candidate in the 2012 New Democrat leadership race warned his fellow NDPers about the dangers of tangling with their occasionally difficult allies in the labour movement.

"Public sector bargaining is one of the progressive left's proudest achievements in Canada," Topp dryly observed in the book's prologue. "It is also perhaps our greatest gift to the political right, who lie in wait to destroy our governments, and then often find ways to outlaw it when they rule."

Some people argue that it is public sector unions who lie in wait "to hold left-wing parties to ransom during elections" -- one suspects from his tone in The Boot that one of them is Topp.

No one can blame any political party, left or right, for giving public employees in Alberta the right to strike. That was done by the Supreme Court of Canada, in 2015, and it can't be undone. But surely the corollary lesson implied by Topp in his book is that every NDP government that has gone to war against its public sector labour unions has lost the next election. Topp, significantly, worked in 2015 and 2016 as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's chief of staff.

It is very difficult to believe this lesson wasn't expressed, and repeated, in the Premier's office, the cabinet room and perhaps even the NDP caucus rooms of the Alberta Legislature during Topp's tenure.

Topp is gone now, however. He left Notley's service almost a year ago, on December 14, 2016. (Remember, a week is a long time in politics.) He was replaced as chief of staff by John Heaney, a lower key but savvy operator, who himself returned at the start of September to his old stomping grounds in Victoria, B.C. Nathan Rotman, once national director of the federal NDP, is now the premier's chief of staff.

So maybe Topp's advice is remembered. Maybe it isn't.

Regardless, here we are in 2017, an election in 2019 close enough now that we can start to feel the vibration in the railway tracks, the United Conservative Party led by Jason Kenney polling comfortably ahead of Notley's NDP, and the governing party acting very much as if it has, in fact, never heard this lesson.

The first bad sign came about a week ago, when Premier Notley uttered the phrase "compassionate belt tightening." She hinted the government would sign "common sense agreements," whatever that was supposed to mean, with public sector unions.

Then, yesterday, there it was again! This time it came out of the mouth of Finance Minister Joe Ceci, who was quoted in a government news release as saying, "I look forward to hearing Albertans' thoughts on how we can continue to make life better for Albertans while compassionately tightening our belt and returning responsibly and carefully to balance without extreme and risky cuts." (Emphasis added.)

This smacks of Compassionate Belt Tightening having become an official talking point.

Technically, Ceci was providing Alberta's second-quarter fiscal update, a legal requirement. Prompted by reporters, however, he was soon commenting on negotiations now underway between the government or its agencies and the Alberta Medical Association, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Services Association of Alberta, and the United Nurses of Alberta.

At the newser, Ceci touted the example of the government's recent agreement with the Alberta Teachers Association -- two years of zeroes -- as something he's hopeful other public-sector unions will accept.

"We're...asking our labour partners to join in our efforts," he told reporters. "We're looking for more common-sense settlements like those we negotiated with teachers, which provide job stability in return for no raises and better services for our kids."

The CBC interpreted his remarks as meaning Ceci was signalling "no pay increases for Alberta unions."

Ceci also indicated there would be a hiring freeze in the civil service and restraint on hiring in health care that would be chilly enough to call it a freeze as well. So far, the details are far from clear.

Public sector union leaders were cool to Ceci's suggestion. They are all in good-faith negotiations, in some cases with a public-sector employer that, at least technically, is not the government. Quoted by journalists, however, none of them sounded like they were contemplating holding anyone to ransom.

Still, everyone has to understand that thanks to the Supreme Court, this is dangerous territory for any Canadian provincial government, especially one led by the NDP.

We all understand the NDP is tired of being blamed for an economic downturn it didn't cause and would like to be able to say, as Ceci did, that the recession is behind us.

It is not quite over, however, just yet. It is too soon for cuts and austerity. That's the economic reality, even if it's not the political reality -- which is the conundrum the Notley government must grapple with.

So, is another NDP premier about to wade into a fight with the party's own supporters -- as Dave Barrett's government did in B.C. in 1973, Bob Rae's did in Ontario 1993, and Roy Romanow's did in Saskatchewan in 1999, with unhappy results in the subsequent general elections?

We're not there yet. No one has proposed extending Rae Days -- Rae's imposition of mandatory unpaid days in addition to a wage freeze on Ontario's civil servants -- into Rachel Days. Still, these are worrisome developments.

The NDP's opponents may praise them for talking about compassionate belt tightening -- as UCP house leader Jason Nixon half-heartedly did after Notley's remarks last week. But UCP supporters will never vote for the NDP.

On the other hand, if this isn't handled deftly, the NDP can persuade its own supporters to stay at home on election day, or even vote for someone else.

I wonder what Topp would now advise?

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

Photo: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

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