Doug Horner

Finance Minister Doug Horner attempted to skate gracefully around Alberta’s furious public employees with some clever PR tactics yesterday when he publicly dictated the pension cuts he says they’re going to have to take, like ’em or not.

The results aren’t in yet from all the judges for Horner’s skating performance.

But it’s said here that when the bulk of the province’s public employees figure out just what he’s done, they’ll be even madder than before — especially once they look where the cuts are now to be made and realize the job categories facing the deepest pension takeaways are those dominated by women, while those that got a little break or two are mostly dominated by men.

So just what are all those women who work hard for all Albertans as nurses, health-care aides, administrative clerks, secretaries, receptionists, cleaners and in a myriad of other tasks so essential that if they strike they face penalties heavier than for many criminal offences? Chopped liver?

Did the strategic brain trust now running the Progressive Conservative government of Alison Redford forget that these are the same women who rallied round the faltering premier in April 2012 and saved her political bacon?

Whatever the reason, Horner tried a little of the old Tory divide-and-conquer by announcing that a few employee groups the PC political brain trust assume are popular with the public, like firefighters and paramedics, can keep their modest pensions with current early retirement provisions.

It’s possible that it didn’t even occur to the Tory strategists that the employees in dark uniforms they decided to cut out from the rest for marginally better treatment were mostly men, while the employees in white and pastel uniforms who were still expected to uncomplainingly get the shaft were mostly women.

But then, that tells a story that’s almost worse than if they’d done it knowingly!

Or maybe the PC brain trust concluded women union members weren’t as tough as men, or would defer to male leaders — which I can tell you after three decades in the labour movement would be a really big mistake!

What’s certainly true is that the resistance from public employees of both genders to the broken pension promise Horner told them in mid-September they were going to have to take has been much stiffer and far more focused than the Redford Government expected.

Few on the receiving end of these cuts have had much time for Horner’s oft-repeated claim they are necessary to make the pension plans “sustainable” — especially after a report by Alberta’s Auditor General the week before last concluded it was unlikely Horner’s changes would achieve that goal.

Tory MLAs — not a few of whom scraped into office in the face of 2012’s Wildrose Wave thanks to the votes of women and public employees in their ridings — have been badly shaken by the constituency visits they’ve been getting from civil servants and health care workers who have told them they have lost their trust and their votes because of the pension cuts, not to mention the government’s odious and heavy-handed labour laws, Bills 45 and 46.

With only the usual suspects in the right-wing AstroTurf and think tank lobby clapping, the worried Tories decided a little divide and conquer here, and a little smoke and mirrors there, might sooth the worries of their troubled caucus.

The divisions Horner’s manoeuvre tries to sow are various:

–    Between groups of workers deemed worthy of better pensions (firefighters, for example) and those the government thinks it can tell to get lost (front-line health care workers, for example)

–    Between those who are going to retire soon (who are promised they can keep their benefits) and those who won’t retire for a while (whom the government hopes aren’t paying attention)

–    Between those who are older (for whom the changes are less severe, assuming there’s no financial crisis or a run on the pension plan) and those who are younger (who no doubt will later be told they’re victims of the Boomer generation)

–    And, of course, between rank and file workers (who get letters urging them to trust the government) and their union leaders (who are ignored and threatened with massive fines if they dare to advocate a st**ke)

I’m sure readers get the picture.

Then, when the whole thing is over, Horner proposes to hand management of the diminished plans over to their boards, so they can take the rap for the damage the PCs have done.

It’s telling that Horner slipped past a group of union leaders outside Government House in Edmonton yesterday, whom he refused to meet, to lay his dictates on the boards of the various pubic sector plans, which include both employer and employee representatives.

While the government hopes to give the impression it has listened to its employees’ concerns, the reality is it has beans in its ears and hears nothing.

When the dust has settled form yesterday’s announcement — which will take a few days — it will turn out the impact of the changes will not be much different from that of Horner’s original plan.

A good first analysis of the meaning of the latest changes can be found on the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ web page. There’s more on The Tories’ sunny news release can be read on the government’s website.

The changes will affect more than 300,000 provincial employees and retirees, plus, presumably, a roughly equal number of family members.

Those 600,000-plus Albertans comprise a group of potential voters the Redford Government has obviously been thinking about. But maybe they should think a little harder!

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...