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Alberta Premier Alison Redford gets warm reception in union lions' den

Alison Redford

It's tempting to say Alberta Premier Alison Redford walked boldly into the lions' den yesterday and emerged unscathed -- whether or not what she found there resembled a room full of pussycats.

There are certainly those in some corners of the labour movement who will think Premier Redford's welcome to the annual convention of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the 80,000-member public service workers' union that is not affiliated to the Canadian Labour Congress, was entirely too congenial.

And it's true it's unlikely this was a performance Opposition Leader Danielle Smith could have managed before the same crowd, her evocative first name notwithstanding.

Premier Redford brought a warm message, and in return she was received warmly by the 1,000 or more people in the hall at Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre. Warmly enough, indeed, that some people there might have imagined they heard purring.

But there is something subtler and more intriguing going on, methinks, as Redford now appears to want to try to maintain the informal and in some ways unlikely alliance her Progressive Conservative government built in the final days of last spring's provincial election campaign with unionized public service workers such as civil servants, health care workers and teachers.

The view of traditionally progressive political parties and many labour leaders after last spring's election was that public employees were naïve to be wooed by Redford into voting strategically for her PCs, and that the premier's still-conservative party would quickly revert to form once it had its majority safely in place. As much has been said in this space.

It was just, back in those scary days when the way-out market-fundamentalist Wildrose Party was riding high in the polls, that the PCs seemed like a safe, reliable and possible refuge to a lot of good rank-and-file Alberta trade union members.

But here it is October with the first snow of the season flying -- as it does almost without fail during AUPE's annual convention -- and Premier Redford is still courting union votes, and indeed seems to be cozying up to public service union leaders like AUPE President Guy Smith as well.

Hers was the first time in history a sitting Alberta premier had ever come calling at an AUPE convention, and as far as anyone can remember, any union convention. Her staff phoned up and asked if she could speak.

So this is starting to smack of a real effort to put up some bridges to the union movement, especially public sector unions -- structures that are built to last.

In this regard, Redford's charm offensive is reminiscent of the coalition departing Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty built with the union movement back when he was still pursuing a strategy that worked for him.

It was also foreshadowed by things said by some of the brighter PC party leaders back in premier Ed Stelmach's day, including Stelmach himself, who seemed to be trying to move the party closer to the centre, notwithstanding pressure from the right by the Wildrose Party and market-fundamentalist Tory insiders like Ted Morton, the worst premier Alberta never had.

All this said, it would be a mistake to read too much into this. Redford is not a social democrat. But she does seem now committed to preserving public services in sectors of the economy traditionally served by public employees. This is a change from her privatization talk during the Conservative leadership campaign in 2011.

Redford's short speech to AUPE yesterday -- frequently punctuated by applause -- was pretty much boilerplate. But it was friendly boilerplate.

"This is an opportunity for me to personally thank your members for the work they do every day across the province … with integrity, dedication and compassion," she began.

If you were waiting for tough news after this friendly start -- and with the government staring at a deficit and the Wildrosers howling about it, that seemed like a possibility -- it never came. Instead, she went on to say "the work you do is central to our government’s vision" and to express other similar sentiments.

"I remain committed to balancing the budget in 2013-2014," Redford stated. But "at the end of the day, Albertans look to their government to provide first-rate public services, and we won't let them down."

Redford also made an effort to reassure provincial employees about the implications for their workplaces of the province’s "results-based budgeting" scheme -- "this isn't as simple as spending less to meet some arbitrary target." Click here to read the full text of Redford's speech, from which she barely deviated.

At an informal news conference after her speech, Redford reconfirmed her support for public services: "Absolutely, and I made that very clear during the election and I haven't at all changed my position. It's fundamental."

Now, there are those in Alberta -- not necessarily people hostile to Redford's stated position on public services -- who think this could be a dangerous strategy from her perspective. After all, they say, you can't keep the loyalty of budget hawks and market fundamentalists, traditional supporters of the Alberta PCs, and also win the hearts of public employees.

Maybe so. But Redford's apparent public service strategy suggests she has figured out the Alberta electorate had changed from the days the Conservatives came to power and that the smart place to move is indeed the centre, not the far right.

The right-wing rump in her own party may scream, and the Wildrose Opposition will fulminate. But if Redford really can build and maintain an alliance with public service labour unions, whose rank and file members show clear signs of understanding the issues and at least knowing who their friends aren't, it could go work out quite nicely for her.

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

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