Girding for battle Nurses, unions, interest groups mobilize to influence Manitobans heading into election
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“Vote like your life depends on it.”
It’s simple, direct and the bottom line for Manitoba nurses, whose union has chosen the slogan heading into what promises to be a bitter election, set for Oct. 3, but which could be called earlier by the Stefanson government.
The Manitoba Nurses Union is already busy making thousands of posters, postcards and lawn signs to get its message out during the campaign in which the Tories’ feet will be put to the fire after seven years in government, including the tumultuous pandemic era that battered the health-care system and ramped up waiting lists for surgery and diagnostics.
“Health care is in big trouble,” said union president Darlene Jackson.
“We want to keep it in the forefront of the public. Health care will be the No. 1 issue in this election.”
Heading into an election, political parties nominate candidates, create platforms, print posters and advertisements, and glad-hand with voters. They’re not the only ones working to sway voters’ opinion.
Like armies preparing to go to war, unions and special interest groups are mobilizing to get their message out to Manitobans or to educate people about key issues before they mark their ballots.
Instead of a red or blue cross symbol, the MNU’s poster shows a broken pink cross with the tag line “Vote like your life depends on it.” Below that, it says “The state of health care is outrageous.”
Jackson said the union has already printed 2,000 posters and an equal number of postcards. The ground may still be frozen, but the union is getting lawn signs ready to go. She said billboards are up across the province.
“I won’t tell people who to vote for, but what we are encouraging the public and our members to do is when they see candidates come to the door, ask what are you going to do to save health care,” she said.
“We want people to question the candidates. Hold them accountable… we’ve the right to expect those who govern us will do what’s right for us.”–Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson
“We want people to question the candidates. Hold them accountable… we’ve the right to expect those who govern us will do what’s right for us.”
MLA Ron Schuler, Progressive Conservative caucus chairman, said his colleagues are well aware critics of the Tory government, especially unions, are preparing for the election.
“Our PC team is providing historic help to Manitobans, and helping them make ends meet,” Schuler said. “We’re confident that our vision for safer streets, stronger communities, healing the health-care system and seizing the opportunities ahead will resonate with Manitobans.
“As we usually see in election years, some public union bosses are acting as mouthpieces for the NDP. However, we represent all Manitoba seniors, families and workers, not just union executives.”
Thomas Linner, provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition, which is made up of unions such as the nurses union, and organizations such as the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, Women’s Health Clinic, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said they will send questions to each political party and present those answers to the public.
“We think that’s really our role in an election, to simply provide information,” Linner said.
Doctors Manitoba, which says it is a non-partisan organization, won’t endorse any specific candidate or party.
However, spokesman Keir Johnson said, “we will certainly be closely monitoring the election and any promises made related to addressing the massive physician shortage in Manitoba. We will offer our expert policy advice on that issue, if asked, by any political party or candidate.”
Organized labour wants its say, too.
“Issues that matter to working families should be at the forefront of the election. Our campaigns don’t really end until they reach their goals and this has been uphill with this government.”–Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour
Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said it raises issues of concern regardless of election timing.
“We raise issues that affect working families,” Rebeck said, noting the MFL currently has campaigns that champion the need to add mental health injuries to workers compensation, as well as the need for paid sick days for workers who don’t have them in their collective agreement.
“Issues that matter to working families should be at the forefront of the election. Our campaigns don’t really end until they reach their goals and this has been uphill with this government.”
Gina McKay, president of CUPE Manitoba, said it has launched its “We Work for Manitoba” campaign that includes petitions to “speak out against Heather Stefanson’s privatization agenda” and “help defend public health care.”
“Over 10,000 Manitobans have already sent emails to their MLAs through the petitions,” McKay said. “That tells us a lot.
“Post-budget, we don’t think the Stefanson government should get off the hook for all the damage it has caused.”
McKay said campaign billboards have been erected and in the months ahead of the vote, CUPE will launch radio ads and a social media blitz.
“If you can empower Manitobans to understand the impact of the cuts, they’ll make their informed decision when they vote.”
Another group that won’t forget funding cuts and salaries freezes imposed on them by the Tory government is academics.
Scott Forbes, president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, which represents more than 1,500 faculty and academic staff at the University of Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, Brandon University and the Universite de Saint-Boniface, said elections are about choice.
“This government has chosen to cut funding for higher education in seven out of eight years,” Forbes said.
“We expect that higher education should be a priority for every government, not just in election years. We shall highlight the key role our universities play in the Manitoba economy and will encourage all candidates to commit to stable multi-year funding and to respect university autonomy.”
The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce will do its part by hosting a leaders debate.
Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the chamber, said even though the election is almost seven months away “we’re just finalizing dates now.”
He said the chamber is creating an election playbook based on what its members want the next government to focus on, no matter which party is in power.
Remillard said they are doing it now because they want to make sure candidates are aware of the views and opinions of chamber members.
“We are a non-partisan organization and we are firmly loyal to being non-partisan. We have to work with all governments,” he said. “We’ve worked with the NDP government and previous left-leaning mayors.
“We care about good policy, not good politics. If it is good policy, it helps our community, our business members, and all Manitobans.”
“We care about good policy, not good politics. If it is good policy, it helps our community, our business members, and all Manitobans.”–Loren Remillard, Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president and CEO
A large group with a huge stake in how the provincial government is run is its unionized civil service.
When the Progressive Conservatives won government in 2016, then-premier Brian Pallister vowed to balance the budget and reduce the size of the civil service, which numbered 14,876.
Its ranks decreased each consecutive year until there were 12,232 in 2021 — a reduction of 2,644 positions (nearly 18 per cent). In 2022, the number of civil servants increased for the first time — to 12,514.
Kyle Ross, present of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, said “years of neglect have stretched Manitoba’s public services to the breaking point,” Ross said.
“Services are understaffed, waits are too long, and the people who deliver public services are stressed and burnt out. This election is about choices for Manitobans: Do they want cuts that hurt or public services that help?”
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Updated on Friday, March 10, 2023 8:10 PM CST: Fixes typo