AUPE names activist to top post

EDMONTON - Faced with the "almighty task" of leading Alberta's largest civil service union through some of the toughest challenges it has faced in nearly two decades, Guy Smith will be officially sworn in today as the new president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

"The number of things we have to deal with is immense, but I'm excited," said Smith, a longtime union activist and counsellor at the Yellowhead Youth Centre in Edmonton.

"Although it's an almighty task, we have to be resolute in taking on the defence of our members who are being negatively affected by cuts.

"Basically, it's across the board; in health care, in education, in government services, in boards and agencies."

Smith, 47, won a clear victory in an election Friday at the union's annual convention, putting an end to Doug Knight's more than three-year term.

Knight was elected in a 2006 byelection after Dan MacLennan stepped down. Knight was reelected to a two-year term in October 2007.

AUPE spokesman David Climenhaga called Friday's the vote a clear victory for Smith, and an indication the membership "felt the time was right for a change."

Knight was a vocal critic of the planned bed closures at Alberta Hospital, a cause Smith says remains at the top of his lengthy to-do list.

"We've got to keep the momentum building, so that's a focus for us, but at the same time we have other issues."

Chief among them is Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservative government, which Smith contends appears intent on taking out the current economic crisis "on the backs of workers and public services."

The province has said it will ask teachers, nurses, doctors and other public sector workers to voluntarily accept a two-year wage freeze as part of its plan to control spending, a request the AUPE and other unions roundly rejected.

Smith said concern is growing among his members, who are coming to him in droves with stories about wage freezes, hiring freezes, cutbacks, rollbacks and contracting out.

AUPE represents more than 72,000 people --most of whom work in the public sector-- including the provincial government, health-care employers, and educational facilities.

"It feels like it did in the 1990s under Ralph Klein," said Smith.

"It was a terrible time, and those of us who went through it are not going to be fooled by government again."

Smith said he intends to be more visible and more active in his role as president--with the media and with union members. Among his goals is to visit more work sites across the province to mobilize workers at a grassroots level, one of his key election platforms

He said public sector workers have a role to play in the debate about the future of public services all Albertans rely on.

"When our members are losing jobs, Albertans are losing services, and we believe they will support our efforts to protect quality public services," said Smith.

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said Smith is the right man for the job in these tough economic times.

"His election is significant, especially in the context of what's going on," said Gil McGowan, who represents 137,000 public and private sector workers from 27 unions.

"Given all the rumblings about budget cuts and wage rollbacks coming from premier Stelmach and his ministers, it's clear that all public sector workers and their unions are in for a difficult few years."

Edmonton Journal, Sat Oct 24 2009

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