by David Bush and Doug Nesbitt
The NDP victory in Alberta presents a real opportunity for the labour movement and wider working class to make substantial gains. The defeat of the 44-year Tory dynasty gives energy to those fighting for social justice inside and outside the province. However, the election of a majority NDP government by no means ensures those gains will be made.
While the NDP ran an effective campaign, it was circumstance that created the conditions for them to harness what is largely a protest vote. Falling oil prices, an economic crisis in the province, and the blatantly corrupt PC machine did plenty to anger voters. And the 2012 election already showed the PCs were on thin ice. Prentice’s arrogance and blaming Albertans for his own party’s colossal mismanagement of government funds was the last straw.
The Wildrose Party, which could have captured the protest vote, was in deep disarray only last fall when their erstwhile leader opportunistically crossed the floor to rejoin the big blue party machine. This angered many who saw Wildrose as an alternative to the PCs who would still uphold a low-tax, oil-first agenda. All this hardened the Wildrose’s positions, robbed it of its core leadership and left its political apparatus in crisis.
Alberta’s NDP, which is to the left of most provincial NDPs, is led by a charismatic leader, Rachel Notley. She cleaned Jim Prentice’s clock during the debate and has been consistently on message. The Alberta NDP has run on a platform of raising the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour, raising corporate taxes by a small amount (2%), raising taxes on the wealthiest, reviewing the royalty rates from the oil and gas sector, and creating 2,000 new long-term care beds.
The NDP’s platform is far from perfect. It doesn’t have a real plan to deal with the tar sands, and it has only mildly confronted the revenue problem in Alberta. In the late 1980s, the Alberta NDP formed the opposition when it campaigned for labour reform on the back of the heroic Gainers strike against Peter Pocklington. But this time, it hasn’t committed to overhauling Alberta’s horrendous labour relations code. However, to judge the situation upon the NDP’s platform is to miss the point entirely.
The point is that there are new possibilities with the NDP in power. The NDP has committed to raising the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour by 2018. They have done this despite the lack of an organized minimum wage campaign in the province. They are feeding off the Fight For $15 campaign in the United States, which has now spread to Nova Scotia, Ontario and BC. The labour movement must take the lead and begin to push for this on day one. If the facts on the ground are not created by a campaign and a movement, the NDP could backtrack as the business class and media begin to escalate attacks on the NDP government.
The fight for a $15 minimum wage is not only achievable and ripe for organizing, but it also allows the labour movement in the province to build bridges with the broader working class and link this struggle to the fight against the exploitation of migrant workers. The Fight for $15 requires a broad coalition and a reinvigorated and fighting working class.
This type of door-to-door, worker-to-worker collective organizing is the best antidote to the coming right-wing backlash, which will likely include an employers’ offensive against labour. When the oil economy bottomed out in the early 1980s, Alberta’s powerful construction unions were decimated by contracting out schemes, aggressive employer bargaining, and legislation that weakened unions by allowing “double-breasting”. This employer offensive spilled into other sectors, like meatpacking. This is why Albertans turned to the NDP in the 1980s, electing them to opposition from 1986 to 1993.
Corporations and the Media
The media, the bureaucracy and the employers will not simply roll over and give into even the modest demands presented by the NDP. Employers will continue their attacks on unions and the broader working class. They will organize themselves to oppose every piece of legislation and the corporate media will echo right-wing talking points at every turn. Prentice was endorsed by Alberta’s four biggest papers (Journal, Herald and both Suns), and the Globe and Mail. They won’t rest until the NDP is out of power.
The only way to oppose the inevitable right-wing assault is to organize on the ground around some core demands that will build a broad and united working class willing to fight. The Fight for $15 could be one of these. Hoping the NDP can withstand the onslaught is wishful thinking, especially in light of the Ontario and Nova Scotia experiences of one-term NDP governments. Sometimes building a grassroots movement may mean opposing the NDP, pushing it out of its comfort zone. It definitely does not mean trading blind loyalty or silence for vague future promises.
Albertans don’t have to repeat the mistakes and duplicate the experiences of the NDP in Ontario and Nova Scotia where one-term governments were not pushed by movements on the ground, eventually turned rightward and introduced anti-worker legislation, and were then ousted by the some of the country’s most radical anti-labour right-wing governments. A squandered opportunity will be a blow to all workers, inside and outside Alberta. Albertans have a chance to write a different future but it is going to take a lot of sustained, patient and strategic organizing.