Lessons from the AFL and AOC

What if we’ve run out of time?

What if there’s no time left for baby steps;  for one step forward and two steps back?

What if it’s time to go big or go home?

Last weekend Ms Soapbox attended two events focused on our future.  One was a convention hosted by the Alberta Federation of Labour, the other was the screening of the documentary Knock Down the House which tracked the campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and three other women in the recent American primaries.

Both events presented a fresh take on our political choices.

Simply put, it’s not about going Left or Right, but going up or down, about choosing a government that represents the people, not one that represents corporations and entrenched political parties.

Alberta Federation Labour 2019 Convention

The theme of the AFL convention was “Choosing our Future”.

The line up of speakers carried a powerful message:  heed the lessons of history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.*

The lessons of history

Historian Alvin Finkle described the rise of the labour movement after WWI, starting with the fight for public education, public healthcare, job security, pay equity, an 8 hour day, and safe worksites and culminating with…what…neoliberal governments led by politicians like Jason Kenney who promise to “fix” the economy by gutting public services, imposing austerity, blessing the wealthy with ridiculously low taxes and granting corporations unregulated nirvana?

We’ve been at this for a century and we keep having the same conversation.          

The world’s oldest activist, Harry Leslie Smith, was represented by his son John.

John described Harry’s life which started in crushing poverty but thanks to progressive government policies blossomed into one rich with opportunity.


Harry Leslie Smith

Harry was deeply concerned by neoliberal attacks on the welfare state which contrary to what we’ve been told by Thatcher, Reagan, Klein, Harper, Ford and Kenney, do not create greater prosperity but greater inequality and crushing debt.

Harry had seen all this before.  He said we’re living on the knife edge just like in the 1920s with the same divisions, a similar lack of social safety net and rising poverty which led to war.  He desperately wanted to return government to the people, not the corporations.

Just before he died, Harry asked John for a beer and said, “Enjoy yourself, because it’s later than you think.”

The rise of intolerance

Human rights activists described the rise of intolerance.  They said the politics of hate is not new, but has become more obvious because racists, homophobes, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, sexists, misogynists and bigots aren’t afraid to show their true selves.  Malcolm Azania said the UCP attracts racists like a bank attracts money, it’s part of their business model.

Jean Philistine Old Shoes described the normalization of hate in indigenous communities in southern Alberta, illustrating her point with a story about a First Nations hockey team that returned to the locker room to discover someone has pissed all over their clothes.  Saima Jamal described the vicious verbal abuse she endured as she stood alone, the sole protester, at a Yellow Vest rally in downtown Calgary, and Malcolm Azania urged activists to learn self defence to protect themselves because neoNazis will hurt and kill them.

We’ve seen what happens when fascists get into positions of power, we need to stop them before it happens again.       

Politics and the future

Rachel Notley acknowledged there were many opinions about what her campaign could have done differently, but what really mattered now was how the NDP were going to move ahead.  She promised to oppose policies that harm Alberta workers and to propose policies that will help all Albertans.

Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, described what pro-labour governments have done to improve the lives of all Canadians.  He said the goal is simple:  Every generation must fight to make the next generation better.

Given the existential threat of climate change we’ll be lucky to maintain the status quo.   

This is where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) comes in.

Knock Down the House

The documentary Knock Down the House follows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other female candidates fighting to take government out of the hands of lobbyists, the power brokers and the old guard and return it to the people it is intended to serve.

AOC was the only candidate to succeed.  She defeated Joe Crowley, a 10 term incumbent Democrat and the fourth ranking Democrat in the USA in the New York primary to become the youngest woman (age 29) in Congress.

She campaigned on a platform that would be radical even in Canada.  She supports Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, a Green New Deal, the abolition of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, free public college and trade school, and a 70% marginal tax rate for incomes over $10 million.

Mr Crowley rolled out the traditional Democrat rhetoric saying only he could fight Trump.  He demeaned and patronized AOC as too idealistic and immature to represent her constituents.

She went big, she won, and she’s been making waves ever since.

A choice

If we’ve learned anything from history it’s this:  when progressives “frame” their policies to appeal to “progressive conservatives” they limit themselves to taking tiny incremental steps that fail to spark the imagination of citizens beaten down by cynicism and manipulated and misled by opportunists pushing their own agendas.

This incrementalism won’t deliver the dramatic policy changes necessary to address rising inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class.  It doesn’t respond to the rise of neoliberalism and neofascism or the existential threat of climate change.

It’s time to go big or go home.  To get behind politicians who are crystal clear about their values, who they represent and what they’re fighting for.

And we’d better do it fast because Harry Leslie Smith is right; “it’s later than you think.”

*The convention ran for four days; my observations are based on the one day I was able to attend.  I was blown away by the quality of the presenters.    

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31 Responses to Lessons from the AFL and AOC

  1. ed henderson says:

    Interesting! thank you.
    Your comment, I think…””It’s time to go big or go home. To get behind politicians who are crystal clear about their values, who they represent and what they’re fighting for.””
    Has Premier Kenney left doubt about his vaues?

    • No question in my mind Ed. Premier Kenney is one of a long line of neoliberals peddling the same old snake oil. They roll into town, make things better for a few and worse for everyone else and then leave the mess for someone else to clean up.
      When will we ever learn?

  2. Yes and yes and yes. We know the right things to do…perhaps even more importantly, we know what DOESN’T work. Time to go big, exactly. Time is running out, indeed.

    • Thanks Esme, it’s incredible how far we will go to stay in denial. There’s been a lot of press lately about climate change. So the Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente voiced her two cents worth with an opinion piece saying we shouldn’t panic about climate change causing mass extinction. Her argument is history has shown that our concerns are overblown, in the 1980s scientists predicted as much as 20% of the Earth’s species could be lost by 2000 but later reports have shown that between 1980 to 2010 was there were only 872 species lost and “872 in a global population of several million” isn’t a big deal. I wonder how Ms Wente would react if we told her the latest reports show that only ONE species was going be extinct in 50 years, it was human species, and surely she’d agree that ONE species out of several million isn’t a big deal.

      • Lars says:

        Wente is the queen of complacency. She goes to Bjorn Lomberg, an economist, for the good environmental news, and thinks that this balances the professional opinions of a host of professional conservation biologists. Honestly, she’s living proof that anyone can write a column for the Globe and Mail.

      • Lars, I agree with your take on Wente. I force myself to read her columns just to get an idea of what the conservatives are thinking. That’s not to say every conservative is as vacuous as Wente but her column is being carried by one of the premier conservative papers in the land so …

  3. Dwayne says:

    Susan: Thanks for another great blog. I read or heard recently someone mentioning how Jason Kenney admired what the New Zealand government has done economically. There was a time when that government’s policies had bad consequences on the people in that country. Scary stuff. Something similar happened in the 1990s, in Alberta, and it would not be wise to repeat it. I also read that Jason Kenney has hired out of province “experts” to see if they can offer solutions to Alberta’s financial problems, without increasing taxes. One of them was a former NDP government minister from Saskatchewan. In Postmedia articles, that feature this person, (whose name evades my memory now), they omit the fact that it was a Conservative government that made a fiscal mess in Saskatchewan, leaving it basically bankrupt. She said that the issue Alberta has is a spending problem. It is also still ignored by many people how the Alberta PCs, made Alberta’s fiscal problems, since Peter Lougheed was not the premier. The sub par oil royalty rates, that the Alberta PCs accepted, when Peter Lougheed was not the premier, changed Alberta’s finances drastically. The draining of Alberta’s rainy day, Heritage Fund, to practically nothing, did not help either. Very large sums of money wasted on the worst scandals, time after time, losing billions and billions of dollars. There were the very costly failures of privatization, and deregulation of essential services, like utilities, and registries. The flat tax failure, did not gain Alberta revenue, but lost major amounts of revenue annually. A hefty infrastructure repair bill, from failing to properly upkeep it for decades, was left for Alberta. Then, it was revealed that there is an exponential cost given to Albertans to clean up messes from the oil industry, like tailings ponds, and abandoned oil wells. The cost of cleaning up the mess left from oil companies, was even altered, to make it look not as bad as it actually is. The scapegoats are the usual suspects. The NDP government led by Rachel Notley, the Liberal government in power over Canada, and “transfer payments, from Alberta to Quebec.” Oil prices took a sharp downturn 5 years ago. It is doubtful that oil booms will return. So, with that reality, and Jason Kenney’s corporate tax cuts, this only means one thing. Strong austerity. What savings are there in that? We still are reeling from Ralph Klein’s cuts. The myth that Ralph Klein got Alberta out of debt, is just that. If he did not waste money of very costly scandals, (which also gets ignored by many), lose money on the flat tax disaster, and the stupid cheques to Albertans, these cuts would not be needed. Neoliberal policies do not work. Jason wants to go down that road. Not a good thing. Jason Kenney has already broken election promises. I don’t know how this is going to work for him.
    I recall a famous drummer, John Densmore, from the group, The Doors, (who had a Summer of Love hit, with the song, Light My Fire), saying the left was a dirty word, and now socialism is considered a dirty word. He is right. Hope you had a great Mothers Day.

    • Dwayne, thank you for your comments, let me pick up on the point you make about reducing taxes, Kenney issued a press release today commenting on the acquisition of WestJet by Onex. He said, “This $5-billion investment in WestJet is an important sign of confidence in the future of Alberta’s economy. Our government’s Job Creation Tax Cut and Red Tape Reduction Strategy sends a message to investors like Onex that Alberta is open for business.” This is garbage for a number of reasons: (1) Kenney hasn’t even passed this legislation yet so it had nothing to do with Onex’s decision to buy WJ, (2) Onex approached WJ in March which means it was doing its due diligence and lining up lenders to do the deal months before Kenney won on Apr 16, (3) Onex is a private equity firm, the business of private equity firms is to buy companies using large amounts of borrowed money and a little bit of their own money, implement a cost cutting plan to make the company become more profitable in the short term and then sell it at a profit. This is not a sign of confidence in Alberta as a good place to do business, but a sign of confidence in their own ability to “restructure” WJ and sell it at a healthy profit.
      Score 1 for Neoliberalism, 0 for the UCP government.

      • Dwayne says:

        Susan: The UCP keeps on going lower. How long will it be until their supporters wake up?

      • Dwayne, disillusionment is setting in already, yesterday’s Herald published a letter from someone who said she voted for the UCP but is “greatly disturbed” by Kenney’s decision to ditch the NDP’s “reasonable” plan to protect wildlife and the environment in the headwaters of the North Sask river while at the same time allowing certain public activities in the area. If she’s “disturbed” about this, wait till she finds out Kenney’s decision to cut corporate taxes won’t magically create 100,000 oil jobs.

  4. Carlos Beca says:

    Radical Change is finally becoming mainstream – it could be too late considering Neo liberals have been at it for 30 years. The rest of us have been waiting for good luck.

    • Carlos, I was interested to hear Gil McGowan’s comments at the AFL convention. He outlined a 5 point plan setting out what the labour movement should do to help get the NDP re-elected in 4 years. The 5 point plan was this:
      (1) debunk 3 big lies (that the NDP caused oil jobs to be lost, that conservatives manage the economy better than progressives and that unions are bad for workers and the economy)
      (2) defend what we value (unions, inclusive society, etc)
      (3) build alliances and coalitions with students, seniors, the NDP, etc
      (4) build an alternative narrative to the Kenney narrative (Kenney promotes anger, we need to promote hope through investing in a diversified economy, social services, etc)
      (5) convince our fellow workers they’ve been misled and there’s a better way.

      I thought these were good points, but they’re focused very here and now. We need to come up with a plan for not just Alberta but the rest of Canada. As you point out, relying on luck won’t cut it.

  5. Political Ranger says:

    Welcome aboard Susan!
    Our ship is still taking on water (has been for about 40 years), a little bit faster than we’re able to bail but we are not sinking yet – technically.

    We have run out of time.
    That’s not we Albertans or we Western Canadians or even we Canadians but We The People. Our rights of liberty and self-determination are at risk because of goofs like Kenney, harper and Trump and the criminals they hang around with and criminal acts they undertake. Our rights of freedom and security are at risk because corporations are using our ONLY environment to dump their trash and garbage.
    We are long, long past the point of contracting out the care and defense of our well-being to our “elected representatives”, to farming out our responsibilities for ensuring a fair and just community to some paid corporate hack who can buy the most votes.
    If We The People want our children and grand-children to live lives free from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan-esque “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” then each of us is going to have to stand up and be counted.

    • Carlos Beca says:

      Political Ranger, it is very likely they will (meaning your last paragraph) before any change happens. It took 30 years to get where we are and no one has done much to protect us. Politicians call those who try, radicals and communists and whatever else. Only now it seems things are different but it does not mean we will make it. In Alberta we are still calling NDP socialists and a law to protect farm workers – communist!!!!
      Jason Kenney has a mind of a 1930 fascist but trying to hide it.
      His last one his interesting – create a panel to find how to resolve the deficit – only one condition – taxes cannot be changed. LOL – so if that is the case what is the panel for? Just cut like you promised. What is the panel for? Well it is to continue their very good strategy of continuing the cuts until there is nothing left. It is total deception and people are so gullible they accept anything as long as you bully your way through the Federal Government and sell yourself to the big multinationals.
      So we have a long way to go especially in Alberta
      People travel a bit but they learn basically the all inclusive resorts and the tequilas.
      Our naiveté about the real world is mind boggling – we are completely illiterate in political terms and that is exactly what politicians worked so hard for. Turning around a situation like this is not as easy as people think especially when the newspapers are in their hands and the progressives are so divided and penniless.
      The NDP has a chance of a lifetime and did very little – proportional representation should have been proposed the very first day they got in.
      Now we are left with a party that has way more seats than their 53% of the vote because of concentration of vote in the rural areas and of course old Calgary where oil is like Fentanyl

      • Political Ranger says:

        We don’t have the time Carlos. It has taken much longer than 30 years to get here my friend; over the last 30 years we humans have only doubled the damage done.
        Dr. David Suzuki was warning of this outcome in the early 1980’s, Aldo Leopold and John Muir were describing these outcomes in the generation and decades before that. Henry David Thoreau eulogized the deaths we see around us a century ago. We do not have the time.
        We don’t have another “30 years” for recalcitrant and belligerent morons who flee behind the skirts of The Conservatives. A conservative political outlook was once a sober, serious and wise guide to political affairs, not so much today. They are rather pathetic, immoral and criminal, willing to perform any deed demanded by their corporate masters for just another day in power. As you say, “especially in Alberta”, unfortunately, not exclusively so.

        The rate of change is exponential not arithmetic. More than half the damage done, more than half the GHG emitted since the Industrial age began – has been in our lifetimes!
        Consider this; if the observable effect doubles in extant everyday, then there is one day where you observe the effect in just half the environment and depending on your location it might look like very little in your field of vision. But then, the next day it’s everywhere!
        This is the state in our environment but it is also an (imperfect) analogy for our political state,

        We have for so long assumed out ‘elected’ representatives understood our collective fears of anarchy and fascism, understood what and how a democracy operated and flourished. Since Mulroney, Reagan and Thatcher we have seen a constant erosion of political legitimacy of the electorate in favour of corporate perquisites. Today we are on the precipice.
        Which evil, slow-witted slob is going to push us over the edge into some non-democratic status; dictatorship, autocracy, open warfare … I don’t know what will come but it ain’t democracy.

      • Carlos Beca says:

        I agree – I do not have trust in most humans and I have no doubts that we will only stop with a catastrophe
        Yes you are right about more than 30 years but I was referring more to the crazy change to neoliberal ideology that created the mess we are in on all fronts

    • Thanks Political Ranger, your point that we need to stop “contracting out the care and defense of our well-being” to our elected representatives was brought home in spades in the AOC documentary when people told AOC they were voting for Crowley because he was their man and he’d been in Congress for decades, she reeled off a number of examples where Crowley failed to look out for their interests and asked whether they were satisfied with his performance. Some of them mumbled they’d stick with him anyway because they’d always done so; others decided to give her a chance.
      You’re right, we have to stand up and be counted or we’ll never be taken seriously. I predict more and more of us will be attending rallies all over the province and the country, in the coming months and years.
      The human rights activist Malcolm Azania said this constant protesting is tiring but we must do it and to be strategic about it. He suggested adopting a strategy employed by the Romans, send out your troops in waves, the first phalanx shows up on week one, the second on week two, the third on week three etc. This way those who are tired can fall back and recharge before coming back on week four.

      • Judy J. Johnson says:

        Yes, Susan, you’re right that we must, “…stand up and be counted or we’ll never be taken seriously.” To that end, might I suggest we all try to attend the Friends of Medicare’s Annual General Meeting, May 12th, in Calgary (for complete information, visit the FOM website). Keep writing your informative, thought-provoking posts!

      • Thanks Judy, that’s an excellent suggestion. I checked the FOM website, there’s a typo in your note. (You’re probably getting all riled up about the prospect of us rallying!)
        The AGM is on June 15, here’s the link http://www.friendsofmedicare.org/calendar

  6. Political Ranger and Carlos: it’s clear you two have been observing our descent into neoliberalism for some time now. I’d be interested in getting your thoughts on how we get out of this jam.
    I just started a book by David Moscrop called “To Dumb for Democracy?” Moscrop is a Canadian with a PhD in the psychology of deliberative democratic decision-making. I’ll pass long his findings when I finish the book. Hopefully the answer won’t be yes, we are too dumb for democracy.

    • Political Ranger says:

      I listened to Adam Gopnik on CBC’s The Current this morning https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-may-16-2019-1.5137392
      and he makes a very clear, well-reasoned and strong argument for the survival, indeed continued flourishing, of liberalism in the face of all the corporatism, autocracy, populism and fascism we see all around today. Far be it for me to mount a cogent argument against this thinker but I had a couple thoughts on take-away.
      First, because he talked about the world wars against fascism and naziism in his defense for liberalism, I could not get the image of a group of well-heeled, fashionably dressed well-educated people (of Jewish decent) in fashionable, expensively appointed drawing rooms all across Europe in the early evening of November 9, 1938 – what became to be known as Kristallnacht. How confidant were they of justice that evening?
      Second and following from that image, I think Adam makes the same mistake that many scientific-minded individuals make about our environmental crisis and central bankers make about financial crisis. That the eventual positive outcome means one shouldn’t be too upset about the specific events along the way. That as bad as it is at the moment right-thinking intelligence and ingenuity has always and will continue to win the day for us. This is faulty thinking for politics, for the environment and for financial affairs. Some events are impossible to recover from, for individuals or for nations, ecosystems or economies.

      • Political Ranger I just listened to the Gopnik interview. I think he’d respond to your points by saying the goals of liberalism are imperfectly achieved but as long as we implant what he calls “a corrective conscience” into our institutions these institutions will guide us along the path to achieve reform through reason not violence. I think he bases this on the fact that liberalism has been around since the 16th century and has survived various onslaughts. As you correctly point out the problem with this rationale is that those lapses into “imperfection” are disastrously cruel and inhumane. I don’t know how a “corrective conscience” can inoculate our institutions to protect citizens from political leaders who use fear, prejudice and greed to push an illiberal agenda. Case in point, Donald Trump was democratically elected in 2016. He’s changed the face of the Supreme Court to such a degree that decades of activism fighting for a woman’s right to choose and against discrimination on the basis of race, sex and gender, may go up in smoke.

      • Carlos Beca says:

        Very Interesting discussion. Susan your comment about the lapses into imperfection have been on my mind quite a lot. The reason being that in the Democratic process this is inevitable. Of course we have not recently been in this situation if ever, in our part of the world – I mean change to an ideology that for sure is going to change what we have so far considered to be within acceptable parameters.
        Like you mentioned, the Supreme Court in the US is now a mad house of extreme conservatism and could push the whole country into dangerous territory.
        So how do we resolve this? Here I am not in Gopnik camp at all because I think that without a radical response to what is going on the system will slowly fall into a dictatorship. I was amazed when Nancy Pelosi announced a couple of weeks ago that we should watch out because if the next election is close Trump may refuse to leave.
        Hearing this from the Democratic top person in the American Congress is to say the least scary. There was virtually no reaction as far as I know.

        This ‘corrective conscience’ is another liberal dream in my opinion – we have been on this sleepy mode too long to think that the Conservatives are not preparing to change the political order to be from Conservative to Fascist and eliminate liberal ideology, never mind social democracy and Socialism will be banned.
        Is this hard to believe? Well imagine 10 years ago if we thought possible what is happening around the democratic world. Furthermore do not forget that for the first time in our living memory one of the richest countries in the world is not a democracy and it is not a western nation.

  7. Lars says:

    “Malcolm Azania said the UCP attracts racists like a bank attracts money, it’s part of their business model..”

    While I don’t doubt that the UCP attracts a bad element, I don’t see the mechanism here. How is it in the UCP’s interest to attract followers that will detract from their reputation?

    • Carlos Beca says:

      Very Simple Lars – the majority of Albertans do not care about reputation or facts.

      • Lars says:

        Thanks, Carlos, but I’m still having trouble here – exactly how do racists add to the UCP’s appeal? Except to other racists, of course – but I thought that right-wing populism wasn’t explicitly racist (OK, that is maybe not true in the States) – what’s the racist constituency in Alberta? How’s it in the UCP’s interest to smear dirt all over themselves?
        No question that a lot of Albertans are not reality-based, and I’ve been quite surprised (and appalled) at how many respondents outright state that it doesn’t matter how dirty Jason Kenney’s hands got during the WR leadership contest, he was still their boy (the CBC comments are a real education in this regard).
        Not trying to be obtuse here, just don’t want to think I’m missing out on something.

      • Lars, you asked how do racists add to the UCP’s appeal. They don’t. Racists, homophobes, etc vote for the UCP because the party supports or appears to support Rebel Media, Faith Goldy and John Carpay. Other conservatives vote for the UCP because they believe (wrongly) that conservatives are better for the economy and they’re prepared to turn a blind eye to the fact their party appeals to racists because they think Kenney can control his racist base. But as we learned from Trump’s election, this isn’t the case. Kenney is playing a dangerous game, because as Stephen King said if you sow dragons teeth you shouldn’t be surprised when you grow a dragon.

      • Carlos, I’d add that Alberta is home to more racists, homophobes, misogynists than we would care to admit. A friend’s daughter worked in a small town in Mark Smith’s riding. Smith was the UCP MLA who made horrible homophobic comments. She said she’d met many many people who agree with Smith about the worth (or lack thereof) of the LBGTQ community. She was extremely happy to come home to Calgary after a year in that particular rural community.

      • Carlos Beca says:

        Yes I did not say the rest of it out of respect to Susan who has strict rules and I did not want to cross the line. I am glad that she replied herself because I totally agree.
        Unfortunately one bad side of this province is that whether people like it or not, we are rednecks and we are always ready to support everything and anything as long as it is about business and money. It is not an accident that Jason Kenney chose Alberta as a step to his prime ministerial objectives. He lived here and he knows how easy it is to get people to be behind you. Just watch him when the legislature opens and you will see the best show on earth. Ralph Klein insulted people left and right and people loved it. It is our cowboy way of saying I love you. It is a tremendous handicap for all of us because Alberta run with some brains would have easily been an amazing place and example for the rest of Canada and the world. As it is, after producing something like 21 trillion dollars of oil we are 10 billion in debt, we have 17 billion in the Heritage Trust Fund and we owe more than that as our deficit. In social terms it is what we have discussed.
        In real terms I am not sure oil has been a blessing at all.
        Personally, to witness this since 1981, has been one of the most difficult events in my life.
        I hope this complements Susan’s answer.

    • Lars, Malcolm made the comment in response to a question from Gil McGowan who asked why racists were attracted to the UCP. Malcolm said they feel comfortable there because the UCP doesn’t merely tolerate them, it makes them feel welcome. He reminded us that the UCP invited Rebel Media to Kenney’s victory speech. He said being attractive to racists wasn’t a bug but a feature of the party.

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