Right in the Centre - Unions in control


By Ken Waddell

The Neepawa Banner

Tuesday’s Winnipeg Free Press summarizes the staffing situation in Premier Greg Selinger’s office. “Selinger, facing a rebellion within the NDP caucus over his leadership, hired two new staffers last month, paying them six-figure salaries.

Heather Grant-Jury, an activist with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, was hired to the new position of principal secretary to the premier. Paul McKie, a staff rep with the labour union Unifor — which represents staff of many media outlets including the Winnipeg Free Press — was also brought on board.

At first, it was thought the two were hired in place of chief of staff Liam Martin, who was shown the door shortly after they arrived.”

The article goes on to explain that Martin was replaced by the assistant chief of staff.

The Free Press, and many others, figure that these high paid, high powered individuals were brought in to bolster the premier and to help with his leadership campaign. That may be partly true but there’s a much deeper plot at work here. Politicians don’t play checkers, they play chess, There’s a bigger game going on here and Selinger may only be partly aware of the plans.

On the surface, the staff were brought in to shore up the premier’s fortunes but it isn’t for his sake. It’s more likely for the party’s sake. The staff may have some loyalty to Selinger but they have a higher loyalty to the NDP party. They are, after all, high ranking union reps.

One must understand that the premier’s office has been controlled by the unions since 1999. That was when former Manitoba Government Employees Union head, Gary Doer became premier. The only difference is that Doer was able to hide the influence and Selinger doesn’t have the skills to do so. Union control is very much out in the open now.

The extra hired hands in the premier’s office are there to keep Selinger between the ditches until early March. That’s when the NDP will hold a leadership vote. The party wants the premier’s office to keep functioning as well as it can and without the pot-stirring rebellion that’s been taking place. Selinger is a very stubborn man and it has caused him lots of problems in the caucus. Many caucus and former caucus members are upset with him but everyone has agreed to play nice to ride out the storm.

The union reps aren’t planted in the premier’s office to necessarily keep Selinger in power. They are there to keep the NDP in power. They are there to guide the process as gracefully as they can to a position where an anointed, union loved MLA will be ushered into the premier’s chair. 

So who is that likely to be? Two names are prominent and a third begs the question. Certainly, the leading choice would be Theresa Oswald. She has a lot of very desirable characteristics. Then there’s Kevin Chief who is young and aboriginal. If elected premier, he might be able to claim being the first full blood aboriginal premier in Manitoba. The third is Steve Ashton who lost out to Selinger five years ago. Ashton has been around a long time and always looks old and tired. He’s only 58 but looks a lot older.

Of the three. Ashton is certainly the most experienced, the smartest and actually has a very good way of speaking with people.

At this point, and without the actual rules of the race having been announced as of this week, the unions will be pondering the future very carefully. Selinger will be quietly escorted out the back door of the premier’s office and the candidate that the unions choose will be brought in the front door. The unions will put forward that Sellinger has been around for too long. Ten years as finance minister and five as premier is simply too long. He’s likely done and the public feel that. The unions know how the public feels. It’s very difficult to present a new fresh image for the party when the head guy has been in position number two and number one for all 15 years.

The bigger question will be who the public will most readily accept as the  best “fresh” face. Ashton looks old and he too has been at the forefront for a long time. Ashton will be a tough sell. So it may well boil down to Oswald, a smart woman with experience who looks good on camera and speaks well or Kevin Chief who is young, smart and aboriginal but lacking in experience.

One factor that will be in Oswald’s favour is that Alex Forrest, head of the Winnipeg fire fighters union, has long been an Oswald supporter. Figure on the fire fighters backing Oswald, at least early on.

It doesn’t matter to the unions who the next premier is, they are in control anyway. What matters is who they think they can package up to be palatable to a voting public who are ticked off with Selinger and the NDP.