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Only in Alberta, you say? Tory trade unionists derail anti-union resolution

Only in Alberta could trade union delegates to a Conservative convention manage to win a raucous floor fight to overturn an anti-union resolution.

Mind you, this weird tale tells more about the deep and growing divisions within the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party and the ability of the far-right Wildrose Alliance to exploit them effectively than it does about any influence trade union members actually have in ruling Tory circles.

For, make no mistake about it, the Conservatives under Premier Ed Stelmach are a right-wing party, deeply immersed in the market fundamentalist orthodoxy of this era, although not one that is so ideologically pure it would willingly adopt foolish policies certain to cause it problems in the polling booth.

Still, plenty of Alberta union members are also Conservative party members, and more than 30 of them showed up at the party's convention in Calgary Saturday afternoon to help slay a resolution brought forward by the Edmonton McClung Constituency Association designed to make it impossible for unions to do anything but negotiate contracts and fight grievances.

The resolution asked for the province's Labour Code to be amended so that union members who don't want to support advertising campaigns and other activities by their union that are deemed political could withhold their dues. The resulting tangle would effectively stop most union activities.

Never mind that the resolution proposed a change to the law that is almost certainly unconstitutional, notwithstanding an opinion to the contrary from the coruscating legalists at the firm of McLennan Ross.

And never mind that the Conservative Legislative caucus would have been quite free to ignore convention resolutions of this type -- they, after all, face the task of getting re-elected.

And never mind even that the leaders of the Conservative party very much wished this resolution had never come up, such was its potential for mischief.

In the end, it took a group of cranky building trades unionists -- card-holding Tories to a man -- to narrowly defeat the motion, which had been brought forward at the behest of an association of non-union construction firms, who for all practical purposes find themselves in competition for work and workers with the building trades unions, and perhaps some others as well.

In the event, it was a close fought thing, with shouts of "out of order" and bitter recollections of the union-sponsored "No Plan" television advertising from 2007 that to this day makes Tory blood run cold. The Edmonton Journal described the floor fight as "one of the most heated moments of the convention," quoting one opponent of the resolution accurately describing it as "a wedge issue, an issue that divides us at a time when this party is under attack from all sides!"

Indeed, that was likely the idea. If so, therein lies the real story of how this mischievous resolution played so precisely to the goals of the Wildrose Alliance and its corporate sponsors. Gee, it was almost as if they'd brought it forward themselves to exploit the natural tensions between the progressives and the conservatives within the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

As Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson rightly pointed out, "in Alberta, these two opposites are attracted by the most irresistible of forces: political power. It is the overpowering glue that holds the Conservative tent together…" Indeed, Alberta until very recently was not unlike the Soviet Union circa 1972 -- beginning to wobble a little on its axis, perhaps, but with only one political party through which the politically engaged could realize their ambitions for power.

However, ever since the flexible Peter Lougheed departed from the political scene in 1985, Alberta Conservatives have been more than a little uncomfortable in their role as a big-tent brokerage political party that includes both extreme market fundamentalists and people who in other provinces would almost certainly be Liberals or New Democrats.

That is why the arrival of the Wildrose Alliance, a party that argues the Conservatives under Stelmach are not nearly market fundamentalist enough, leaves the Conservatives on the horns of a dilemma.

Do they agree to the strategy demanded by their own radical right and adopt the policies of the Wildrose Alliance at the risk of alienating cautious voters who might support them as the party most likely to keep the market fundamentalist, anti-union, socially conservative Alliance out of power?

Or do they try to move to the centre to appease those moderate voters and drive their numerous more ideological supporters into the arms of the Wildrose Alliance?

This is a genuine dilemma first because it is not completely clear to anyone which strategy is likely to work best, and second because it reflects a real split that already exists within this venerable party.

Past Conservative leaders have always been able to paper over this rift because there was no right-wing alternative like the Wildrose Alliance waiting in the wings. No more!

Whether or not Wildrose operatives were behind the resolution and the fight it prompted, the effect is just as the Journal's anonymous source predicted: it drives a wedge between the party's progressives, who may actually be quite conservative, and it so-called conservatives, who are truly quite radical.

Unless Premier Stelmach and other Tory leaders can find a way to patch up these differences, the resulting gap benefits every political party in Alberta except the Conservatives.

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

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