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The UCP's propaganda machine goes after Alberta's registered nurses

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Alberta nurses: targeted for UCP rollbacks. Image: Submitted/United Nurses of Alberta

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) called out the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) yesterday for the partisan role it plays supporting the Kenney government's contract demands in negotiations with the union that represents the province's frontline registered nurses.

Calling the CTF "a secretive anti-union lobby group," AFL president Gil McGowan ripped the supposedly non-partisan "tax watchdog" for the way it "operates openly as a part of the United Conservative Party propaganda machine, serving media the government's talking points about the nurses' current round of bargaining with Alberta Health Services while the government directs AHS bargaining behind the scenes."

But as the United Nurses of Alberta's negotiations with AHS show, when public-sector unions bargain with the government of Premier Jason Kenney, they must also be prepared to deal with handpicked "expert panels," giant multinational consulting firms, sympathetic journalists with privileged access to top officials, and publicly paid press secretaries, "issues management" and "digital strategy" staffers all amplifying each other's talking points.

When citizens push back against government plans and policies, they can expect to be swarmed and bullied, often quite personally, by government political staff, who quickly and unprofessionally turn into a mob of tax-supported social media trolls.

Yet for some reason, this use of tax dollars doesn't seem to bother the CTF. Indeed, when it came to the government's effort to bargain UNA's contract in mainstream and social media, CTF Alberta "director" Franco Terrazzano happily repeated UCP talking points in the misleading news release that prompted McGowan's accusation the CTF is in "open collusion" with the government.

"Calling nurses' pay and modest pensions 'golden benefits,' making misleading claims nurses receive 'double pensions' and saying overtime for nurses who work overtime is 'unfair,' all show how the CTF dovetails its messaging with a government led by a premier who used to be the president and CEO of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation," the AFL news release stated.

Clearly, though, Terrazzano's efforts are part of a much broader strategy by the government and its allies, which illustrates how the right-wing propaganda ecosystem operates under the Trump-like UCP.

Even before bargaining for a new collective agreement between UNA and AHS began, the supposedly independent "Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta's Finances" headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon (whose mandate didn't include examining the impacts of the government's $4.7-billion corporate tax giveaway) was calling for specific rollbacks in UNA's collective agreement.

It turns out, as we now know, the MacKinnon Panel's efforts were being stage managed from within the Premier's Office.

At the same time, the $2-million "review" of AHS conducted by British-based management consultants Ernst & Young was drafting calls to gut the nurses' contract as if collective bargaining didn't exist, and replace many RNs with licensed practical nurses who have a narrower scope of practice and typically are lower paid for that reason.

As soon as bargaining began in mid-January, the AHS negotiating team proposed massive rollbacks that, it turned out on February 2 (when the review was made public), appeared to have come straight from the pages of the Ernst & Young report.

The next day, UNA president Heather Smith responded to Ernst & Young's analysis and recommendations, noting that "Statistics Canada figures show that average weekly earnings in virtually all job categories in Alberta are higher than in all other Canadian provinces."

"Cherry-picking health care pay and trying to use that as a club in bargaining to make nurses and other frontline health care providers alone pay for big cuts the government hopes to make is unjust and certainly won't impress our members, the majority of whom are women," she said in a media release.

Smith said she was troubled by the report's recommendation the health care staffing mix should be changed to include a higher percentage of health care aides and licensed practical nurses. "These are patient care decisions that need to be made by clinicians, not accountants."

Kenney's publicly paid private Twitter troll army jumped on these points, trying to spin them into an attack by Smith on LPNs, presumably to try to drive a wedge between different groups of unionized nurses.

"Unfortunate that some have decided to denigrate the abilities of Licensed Practical Nurses like this," tweeted Matt Wolf, Kenney's $200,000-a-year "issues management" director.

"Very disappointing to see @RachelNotley echoing these smears against licensed practical nurses," tweeted Paul Taillon, the premier's director of "digital strategy." Notley, the Opposition NDP leader and former premier, had retweeted a CBC story that referred to LPNs and health care aides as "cheaper staff" in the headline.

"'Devaluing' people who provide health care ... like how Rachel Notley constantly insults LPNs," tweeted Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, taking the original accusation even farther from the truth. (Emphasis added in all cases.)

There was much more of this nonsense by other members of the publicly paid UCP political staff, but readers will get the idea from these examples.

The CTF's Terrazzano then joined the fray on the government's side with his press release, attacking the UNA collective agreement and supporting the UCP plan to make frontline health care workers pay for corporate tax cuts.

Within moments a web-based "news" site called the Western Standard repeated the misleading claims made by the CTF in a story headlined "Alberta nurses' benefits should be rolled back." It published another story attacking the UNA contract later in the day.

Rights to the Western Standard name, published as a print magazine by Rebel Media founder Ezra Levant in the mid-2000s, were recently bought by former Wildrose and UCP MLA Derek Fildebrandt. Fildebrandt, unsurprisingly, is also a former Alberta director of the CTF.

The same day, former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, now a right-wing radio talk jock in Calgary, was on the air telling listeners, "United Nurses of Alberta receive two pensions, unfair overtime pay and yearly top-up bonuses." Smith is also a former Fraser Institute apparatchik and former Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, both of which are also key parts of the UCP support network.

All that remains to be published is a Postmedia column by Rick Bell saying all the same things, a job he seems only to have started on Tuesday.

I think readers can understand quite well how this all fits together.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca. By day, he is an employee of United Nurses of Alberta. 

Image: Submitted/United Nurses of Alberta​

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