Carol Furlong had the good fortune to be the head of the province’s largest public sector union at a time when the provincial government had more cash than it knew what to do with and was prepared to buy support from anyone, anywhere, at any price.
Now that the bills for the Conservatives’ profligacy are coming due, the people who profited from it are rightly nervous that they will be asked to pay up.
The fellow they elected to replace Furlong – Jerry Earle – has promised to be more aggressive in dealing with government. He appears to be a reactionary union boss of the old fashioned kind. In his first scrum with reporters, Earle promised to make himself the official opposition to government.
While everyone in the province ought to take notice of the NAPE presidential election two politicians in particular need to pay particular attention.
Newly installed New Democrat front man Earle McCurdy is the first guy who should be worried about the resurgent militancy in NAPE. The NDP already suffers from being the front organization for labour. The Dippers are dependent wholly on the unions for operating cash, for one thing. For another, the party has contented itself with a role more closely associated with a heckler than a player.
If he lives up to his initial tough talk, Jerry Earle will rapidly eclipse Earle McCurdy. Jerry has skin in the political game with the government and that will automatically give him precedence over the co-leader of a gang that the polls suggest is destined for the political sidelines. Jerry Earle talks like he is from 30 years ago. Earle McCurdy and the NDP are headed for the time when they didn’t have a seat in the House. You can see how it fits together.
The other politician who needs to watch out is Dwight Ball. The current Conservatives are going to kick the province’s financial mess down the road. That means Dwight Ball and the Liberals would face a Conservative turd booby trap them after the next election. As it looks, Jerry Earle will be the spinning fan that turd will drop against. The result won’t be pretty.
The problem the Liberals will face a short way in the future is similar to the one the Conservatives faced in 2003. They arrived in office without a sense of what the job entailed. They took months to figure out trivial things like what to call departments. The result was a first year that started out with a political war with the public sector unions that ended by the spring with the Conservatives abandoning their initial pledge of responsible fiscal management.
CBC Radio interviewed former NAPE boss Tom Hanlon on Wednesday. He sounded like he always has: unconcerned for the province’s financial health and concerned only with the good of his union and his members. No one should fault him for that. But by the same token no one should imagine that Hanlon or now Jerry Earle knows about or cares about the long-term best interest of the province.
Hanlon made that plain when he recounted how the Tories in the 1980s had placated the unions by cutting public works spending to the bone. Of course, that eventually meant that buildings started falling apart, as Hanlon acknowledged, but he quite obviously didn’t give a rat’s ass about it.
Former NAPE bosses have faced clear-eyed politicians who had little manoeuvring room because of the provincial government’s tight financial situation. It worked out very well for them, usually. A focussed, determined union leader up against a politician who has no clear agenda of his own is a recipe for political problems. That’s what happened in 2004, although you won’t find many people who appreciate that. They know the media illusion.
In Dwight Ball’s case, he seems to have a tendency to evolve his way into a position. Doesn’t matter what the topic. He seems to tackle everything as an exercise in finding the middle ground. That works great when there is room for a consensus. But when faced with a situation that is more cut-and-dried or with an opponent who isn’t interested in compromise, such an approach might not be the best one.
New leaders have about 100 days in which to establish their agenda. Ball and his team seem to be having difficulty these days understanding that they can actually make news, not just react to it. The two things are intimately related. If they wind up in office, using their current style, against a hostile union, they might find that the spinning thing looks more a lot more like a chainsaw than a shit-covered fan.