Braid: Facing first heavy attack in NDP leadership race, Nenshi denies he's against unions

The union vote within the party, or at least some of it, is considered crucial to any NDP leadership candidate’s victory

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The previously polite NDP leadership race turned red-hot Wednesday with allegations that candidate Naheed Nenshi is anti-union.

A letter surfaced in which Nenshi, as Calgary mayor, asked the province to consider changing city hall union contracts and freezing wages.

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Sent in 2019 to then-labour minister Jason Copping, the letter says: “I am asking your government to consider and review what actions, if any, could allow for the altering of existing and pending collective agreements that would enable council to consider a 2020 wage freeze.”

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Candidate Kathleen Ganley said: “I think it’s incredibly troubling. It’s asking to get around the laws and rights that are intended to protect workers . . . and asking to get out of a contract that he had previously made.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I think that people should keep the deals that they made and respect the rights of workers.”

The former Calgary mayor is vulnerable to charges that he isn’t a real New Democrat because he’s never been one before. The union vote within the party, or at least some of it, is considered crucial to any NDP leadership candidate’s victory.

“Look, people can legitimately ask questions,” Nenshi says.

“I’m a newcomer, great. But you know, to focus on a letter from five years ago instead of on a record of 11 years, seems to me a bit grasping at straws — particularly when the letter came from the UCP.”

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Council asked Nenshi to make the case to the province. This often happens and mayors oblige, even when they don’t necessarily agree.

Nenshi says he voted against motions leading up to the letter but agreed to send it because the majority opinion was clear.

He adds that he was sure the ideas would never go anywhere and didn’t want them to. Copping did not respond.

The details don’t impress Ganley. “To the best of my knowledge, he voted in favour of it, and those are public records. So, it seems like a bit of a weak justification to me.”

Kathleen Ganley
Alberta NDP leader candidate Kathleen Ganley speaks to media in downtown Calgary on Monday, February 19, 2024. Photo by Jim Wells /Postmedia

Asked if the letter hurts his campaign, Nenshi says, “I’ve spent lots of time with labour organizations. I think my record with working people is unimpeachable and I stand on it.”

He points out that Building Trades of Alberta, which represents 75,000 workers and 16 unions, backs him for leader.

The union said it’s “proud to endorse Naheed Nenshi.”

Jeromy Farkas, the conservative councillor who ran for mayor to succeed Nenshi, hooted when I asked him if his old adversary is against unions.

“The thought that Naheed Nenshi is anti-union is completely laughable,” Farkas said.

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“I find it just so ridiculous that his opponents, rather than focus on legitimate criticisms of his record, are trying to manufacture these frankly B.S. allegations.”

Jeromy Farkas and Naheed Nenshi
Then-councillor Jeromy Farkas, left, with then-mayor Naheed Nenshi in 2018. Photo by Jim Wells /Postmedia file

But fierce criticism comes from other leadership candidates.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says “he didn’t just send the letter. He voted in favour of the motion.

“This raises a flag about Naheed’s judgment. At worst it says that when push comes to shove, he can’t be counted on to take the side of workers.

“I can’t think of a single New Democrat I know who would have signed that letter and sent it to a UCP minister.

“I honestly hope he apologizes for the letter.”

Gil McGowan
Gil McGowan poses following a press conference in Calgary on Wednesday, October 12, 2022. Photo by Jim Wells /Postmedia, file

There’s no doubt that the UCP does not want Nenshi to win the NDP leadership.

If they did leak this letter to hurt him, it comes with a touch of hypocrisy. This is the government that tore up Alberta physicians’ signed pay agreement in 2020.

This blow-up might not damage Nenshi’s campaign, if it’s true that the party membership has grown sharply since he joined the race.

Many of those new folks are joining because they think Nenshi can beat the UCP. Even McGowan says the NDP has lost much of its appeal for workers.

For now, it’s clear that after months of phoney war, the NDP’s internal battle is finally beginning.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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