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There's no better time than right now for non-union municipal employees to look for union protection

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St. Albert City Hall

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

If you're a front-line administrative or library worker employed by the City of St. Albert, you should be thinking seriously about joining a union. Now. Here's why:

Cast your mind back to the rhetoric and tactics of a number of candidates in this community during the last Alberta civic election in November 2013.

One of them talked incessantly about his plans to eliminate several city departments (and, presumably, the jobs of all the employees that work in them as well as the services they provide), arbitrarily cap city employees' salaries, and slash the pensions of city employees -- never mind that those pensions were not under the control of the city government.

That person didn't win, as it happened, but he was part of a slate of candidates endorsed by a couple of well-financed anonymous entities that did very well, electing a couple of councillors who are now acting in ways that strongly suggest a concerted attempt to unseat Mayor Nolan Crouse and replace him with one of their number is already underway.

Well, fair enough, I guess. That's democracy.

Leastways, it's democracy Alberta style -- complete with pots of money from secret sources, anonymous smear campaigns, and scurrilous images implying that candidates without the endorsement of the unnamed "concerned citizens" who may or may not live here planned literally to piss away your tax money. (Full disclosure: it was my name on the urinal on the far left in a graphic published by one of these anonymous campaigns.)

But it's fair to say the people who endorsed these candidates -- whoever they were -- are honing their techniques and learning the lessons of other "populist" "anti-tax" campaigns as taught by such institutions as the Calgary-based Manning Centre for supporting far-right municipal takeovers.

While it is unfair to make generalizations about the views of a fairly large group of potential municipal candidates on the political right, it is fair to conclude that many of them sincerely believe with almost religious fervour that private companies always do a better job than public employees -- notwithstanding a vast body of evidence to the contrary.

Others have a much nastier point of view about public servants.

Regardless, if you are an employee of the City of St. Albert -- whether you are a unionized outside or police worker or a non-union administrative or library worker -- it's safe to say there is bound to be a significant number of candidates who disparage public services generally, hold your work in contempt, and even actively dislike you just because of the role you play in their community.

If you are an employee of the public library or in the arts generally, these same people are quite likely to wishfully believe your work is merely a frill for a "special interest" and, moreover, that in the digital age the important services you provide are obsolete anyway.

How many times have you heard one of these people ask, "Why do we need a library now that we have Google?" (In my six years as a public library board member, I always tried to answer that question with this question: "Why do we need a fire department now that we have running water?")

The point is not that the ideas offered by these people -- and promoted by their anonymous and deep-pocketed backers -- have much merit, they obviously don't, but that they have considerable appeal to a significant minority of citizens in our society. Never doubt that the spirit of Rob Ford is alive and well right here in St. Albert.

With voter turnout traditionally low in municipal elections because many voters wrongly conclude little of importance happens at the municipal level, a well-motivated and generously financed group can do a lot of damage. Voter turnout in  St. Albert in 2013, by the way, was a pathetic 34 per cent.

So, what to do? One thing, obviously, is to ensure you vote yourself, and not to vote for candidates who disregard public services and the people who deliver them.

But with candidates who could very well get elected in sufficient numbers to dominate council talking openly about attacking your jobs and your retirement security, it behooves you to ensure you have a legal contractual relationship with your employer that guarantees you will be treated in a consistent and businesslike fashion in the event of an organized attack on your livelihood.

If worse comes to worst -- and it very well could -- city outside workers and police service staff employees who are now members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees will be in a much better position than those of you who do not have union representation. Another union with a great record representing civic workers is my former employer, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

A union contract can’t guarantee your job won't be privatized, but it can guarantee you won't be treated arbitrarily if it is.

Moreover, union membership can provide you with an effective voice that cannot be ignored to advocate for the services that benefit all of us in a community, and with legal and labour relations resources to protect you against illegal or arbitrary abuse or dismissal in your own workplace.

Last year in Alberta, public service union members working together proved just how effective they can be, successfully protecting their modest pensions in the face of a concerted attack on their retirement security by the Redford Government -- led, we should be embarrassed to have to acknowledge, by Spruce Grove-St. Albert MLA Doug Horner.

When it started, Horner, then the finance minister, bragged that he was prepared for a fight if government workers dared to stand up to him. Well, they did, and look where he is today!

The blunt fact is there are people in our community who intend to come after you, your jobs and your families. They are powerful and well connected. And they have money to back their objectives.

You need to be prepared to act collectively to protect your rights in the workplace -- and, incidentally, to protect the things that make our community worth living in.

The best way to do that is to be part of a union. And the best time to do that is now, three years before the next civic election, not in the midst of a crisis caused by anti-public-service radicals allowed onto council by an inattentive electorate.

Of course, there will be lots of people who will tell you shouldn't exercise your legal right to join a union. Some of them will be angry with you. Some of them will sound hurt. Usually just thinking about who they are and who they work for will tell you everything you need to know about how much they truly have your interests at heart.

By all means, listen to such arguments. But I also suggest you talk to your colleagues and friends who are already members of a union and see what they say.

I'm talking about St. Albert, of course, because that's where I live, and the present trend in our municipal political life concerns me as it should concern you.

But it's safe to say similar candidates with similar views are saying and plotting similar things in communities all across Alberta and Canada. So this little object lesson is something for non-union municipal employees to think about everywhere they are found, not just here in St. Albert.

Remember: the time to protect yourself is now, not when the stuff starts hitting the fan.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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