From left, Gil McGowan and Susan Cake.

Who will lead the Alberta Federation of Labour?

Susan Cake challenges Gil McGowan for the AFL presidency.

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Over the past two years, Alberta’s labour movement has fought the province’s United Conservative government on multiple fronts. But the next challenge will come from within, as the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) prepares to elect its leadership.

AFL delegates are meeting May 13-15 for a biennial convention where they will shape the agenda of Alberta’s labour movement in the coming years. This time, however, delegates will be doing more than just passing resolutions. They could be selecting a new president for the first time in more than a decade.

AFL president Gil McGowan, who’s been at the helm of the organization for 16 years, has run unopposed since securing the job in 2005. According to the federation, the position hasn’t been contested since 1993. But now he’s facing a rare challenge from Susan Cake, a member of the Canadian Union of Provincial Employees (CUPE) Local 3911, which represents part-time academic instructors at Athabasca University.

While the elections are done by secret ballot, this year’s convention will be online due to the threat of COVID-19, which means delegates from 69 unions affiliated with the federation will be able to cast votes from the comfort of their homes. Bob Barnetson, a labour studies professor at Athabasca University who has publicly endorsed Cake, says a virtual convention adds a layer of privacy to the proceedings that could propel “an insurgent candidate” to victory.

…[You] might choose to take a run at the job if you had a different vision for it.

Bob Barnetson,

Professor, Athabasca University

“At an in-person convention … you vote privately, but all your union buddies are around you and there’s a lot of peer pressure,” Barnetson explains. “If you’re voting on a Zoom call, you’re not having that kind of peer interaction. Your interaction is just with the candidates and their speeches.”

He says AFL elections tend to get little if any media coverage because the elections aren’t typically contests, and because none of Alberta’s mainstream news outlets have a dedicated labour beat.

There aren’t typically many candidates to choose from in AFL elections. It’s not typically seen as a desirable job, Barnetson adds, because union leaders are able to effect more concrete change by involving themselves in issues directly related to the workplace: “If you’re the president of United Nurses of Alberta or CUPE Alberta, you’re making decisions that affect the working lives of your members in very direct, material ways around collective bargaining and other labour relations matters.”

As a “co-ordinating body” that lobbies the government, the AFL sets the tenor for the labour movement in Alberta, Barnetson says, so the job comes with a certain profile. “That’s who the media goes to for comment,” he explains. “That might be attractive to someone. Or you might choose to take a run at the job if you had a different vision for it.”

A grassroots approach

A director of policy analysis for the AFL, and a tutor at Athabasca University, Cake says she took a particularly keen interest in the labour movement in 2012, after seeing her mother get fired from a laundry worker job for needing time off. Recounting the incident, Cake says that when her mother’s hands went numb, the employer advised against applying for workers’ compensation.

Cake's mother ultimately received compensation with the help of a lawyer, the candidate notes, but lost the job and only received a fraction of the severance owed. “We all have theories about why she was fired out of the blue after 33 years of working there,” Cake says. “It sent my family through this really horrible journey about what it’s like to be a worker who’s injured and is dismissed for it.”

Recently endorsed by the CUPE Alberta executive committee, Cake says she felt the urge to run for the presidency because she believes advocacy in the labour movement needs to focus more on the workplace.

Cake wants to focus more on member engagement and grassroots organizing.

“I wanted to see some change in the movement and I figured, you know what, I don’t see it happening,” she explains. “I’m going to put my name forward and put my ideas forward for the direction I’d like to see us go in.”

Cake sees a divide between the labour movement and the workers it represents, and wants to bridge that gap by focusing more on member engagement and grassroots organizing. She says that while the AFL has traditionally taken a top-down, managerial approach in its advocacy, her vision involves flipping that model “on its head” and turning the federation into a “hub” to help affiliates and workers organize workforces.

The goal is to ensure AFL campaigns and political activity is “really connected with … members in a meaningful way,” Cake says. This can be accomplished, she adds, with a move to more “values-based messaging,” which appeals to universal values—such as fairness, care and equality—shared by the diverse members of the labour movement.

The AFL was founded in 1912 by coal miners in the Crowsnest Pass who couldn’t anticipate the changes technology would bring to the nature of work. Cake says the labour movement needs to adapt accordingly.

“When this was set up, we didn’t think precarious work or gig work was going to become so prevalent,” she says. “This is a wider issue for labour across North America—how do we deal with this category that’s been created of workers who are outside of our industrial relations framework?”

She says McGowan has done some “incredible things” as president, in terms of raising awareness of Alberta’s labour movement. But after 16 years, it’s time for a change of direction, she adds. “It’s great that there’s a choice and people get to make a choice about their future.”

Running on reputation

McGowan began his career in journalism working for the Canadian Press and Edmonton Journal. But in 1994 he jumped to the labour movement to do communications work for a CUPE local in Edmonton, which was then campaigning against the privatization of garbage collection services—a battle the local ultimately won.

“We influenced the course of public policy in the City of Edmonton.” McGowan told the Forgotten Corner podcast in September 2020. “We saved a whole bunch of jobs, so the city wasn’t able to turn good family-sustaining, community-sustaining jobs into crappy part-time jobs, or low-pay jobs.” (Disclosure: this author is a co-host of the Forgotten Corner.)

It’s really strange that a labour leader would turn down the opportunity to speak to the value of his own candidacy.

Bob Barnetson,

Professor, Athabasca University

McGowan declined Sprawl’s request for an interview before the election—a decision that Barnetson found odd.

“It’s really strange that a labour leader would turn down the opportunity to speak to the value of his own candidacy,” Barnetson says. “That’s bizarre behaviour.”

As a result of his work for CUPE, McGowan was later offered a communications job at the AFL, campaigning against then-premier Ralph Klein’s efforts to allow regional health authorities to hire for-profit companies to do certain medical procedures. “I learned in the ‘90s that the labour movement had this unique responsibility … to help act as a cohesive force within civil society,” he told Forgotten Corner. “We don’t do it by ourselves.”

By 2005, after running unopposed, McGowan was elected for his first two-year term as AFL president. “The Alberta Tories are on notice,” McGowan said in a news release at the time. “As of today, they can expect a new kind of labour movement in this province. Be warned, Ralph, the watchdog is back on duty!"

He also said that he wanted to make the labour movement “politically relevant again,” and that he would increase the organization’s profile and ramp up action against anti-union employers.

Now, 16 years later, Barnetson says McGowan’s tenure has been characterized by a heavy reliance on media relations.

“He issues a lot of press releases, they do online campaigns, he’s always in the media and they periodically do modest, performative demonstrations in public,” he says.

This approach is designed to put “reputational pressure” on governments or employers, to shame them into doing what’s best for workers, Barnetson adds, and it’s only effective insofar as union opponents care about their reputation.

If we hope to successfully protect our members, we’re going to have to fight an air war and a ground war, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

Gil McGowan,

President, Alberta Federation of Labour

The ‘ugly fight’ ahead

In March, McGowan announced that he would be running for president again, and framed himself as a leader with a proven track record of combativeness. After standing up to three conservative Alberta premiers, he added, he intends to do the same with Premier Jason Kenney.

In a video promoting his candidacy, McGowan said “Jason Kenney would love to see me defeated as president of the [AFL].” McGowan explicitly cited his media presence, boasting that he is “quoted in the media more than any other federation of labour president in the country,” according to unnamed media monitoring services. “If we hope to successfully protect our members, we’re going to have to fight an air war and a ground war, the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” he added.

Amalgamated Transit Union 583, which represents Calgary transit workers, has endorsed McGowan. “You have been a voice to reckon with against the Kenney Government since its inception,” local president Mike Mahar wrote in a letter of support. “Your unpopularity with him, solidifies your popularity with us.”

Perhaps McGowan’s most significant endorsement is from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401—the largest private sector AFL affiliate.

According to Barnetson, McGowan’s methods offer a sharp contrast to Cake’s strategy of direct workplace action, which is rooted in the idea that organized workers “have more power if they’re prepared to take direct action that disrupts work or society.” This is a much “scarier proposition” for the powers that be than being criticized in the media, he says.

Whoever wins needs to be prepared for an “ugly fight” with the UCP government, Barnetson adds, specifically over Bill 32, which changes how unions collect their dues. “That’s something the [federation] will have to fight, both legally with a Charter challenge and on the ground,” he says.

Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl.

Now more than ever, Albertans need strong independent journalism.

Sign me up!

Thanks to the support of our 2,000+ members, none of our stories are behind a paywall. Help us do more of the journalism we need right now and become a Sprawl member today!