CANADA

An unemployed lobby

Andrew Nikiforuk July 15 1985
CANADA

An unemployed lobby

Andrew Nikiforuk July 15 1985

An unemployed lobby

CANADA

Andrew Nikiforuk

They call themselves Dandelions and they claim to be as tough as the resilient weed whose name

they have adopted. Wearing leaf-green caps and yellow paper facsimilies of the ubiquitous weed, they pop up unexpectedly at Conservative constituency meetings in Alberta and ask government members barbed questions about the province’s 132,000 unemployed, 10.6 per cent of the work force. Now the Dande-

lions plan to turn their lobbying efforts toward the campaign to replace Peter Lougheed as Conservative party leader and premier. The group will invite leadership candidates to speak at its weekly Monday meetings held at a union hall in Edmonton. Dandelion chairman Vern French said last week that the group plans to be “right outside the door” at the leadership convention in the fall. He added, “Whoever gets in is going to get the same pressure Lougheed got and maybe more.”

In five months, the Dandelions have grown into a potent pressure group for government action to speed recovery from a stubborn economic slump. Predominantly middle-aged, skilled and out of work—many of them lost their homes, cars and retirement savings to Alberta’s recession—the Dandelions are political activists but, so far, firmly nonpartisan. Said French, a 56-year-old

heavy-equipment operator who has been unemployed for 20 months: “If we can unite all the province’s unemployed, we can be one of the strongest lobby groups that Alberta will ever see.” Since their disruptive emergence in February, the Dandelions have attempted to score propaganda points against the government with bold demonstrations that attract attention to their cause in a province unaccustomed to political agitation. From its beginnings, the group has grown to about

3,000 adherents—there is no membership fee or list—and it has mustered crowds of more than 100 people to disrupt Tory riding meetings and stage noisy marches demanding jobs. Sensing the group’s increasing appeal in a province dominated for 14 years by Premier Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives, the small alternative parties—New Democrats, Liberals, Representatives, Communists and even the extreme-right Schiller Institute—have tried to win the Dandelions’ favor, without success. Said Opposition Leader Ray Martin, whose New Democratic Party holds only two seats in the legislature, compared with 75 Conservatives and two Representative Party members: “They’re not behaving in the normal Alberta way of accepting things. They are fighting back, and they’ve brought the issue of unemployment front and centre.”

The Dandelions started as a self-help

movement founded by a handful of outof-work heavy-equipment operators. Originally, they organized expert counselling sessions on such subjects as obtaining unemployment benefits and meeting mortgage payments, as well as alcohol abuse and the other consequences of enforced idleness. Then their sessions attracted other unemployed unionists in the building trades and soon included lectures from church leaders, economists, sociologists and politicians such as Edmonton’s Liberal mayor, Laurence Decore.

At first confined to Edmonton, where almost two-thirds of the city’s 25,000 construction tradesmen are unemployed, the movement has spread to Calgary and Fort McMurray and is recruiting farmers, small-businessmen and single, unemployed mothers. Although formally incorporated as the Association of Political Action Committees, the group chose the dandelion as its emblem because it symbolized “the lowest of the low, which is where we are at,” declared Martin McDonnell, the group’s secretary and an unemployed crane operator.

The Dandelions have pressed the Lougheed government to adopt 15 makework capital projects ranging from reforestation to sewage repair. They have also called for a start on $15 billion worth of proposed construction projects in the oil industry. In a direct-action demonstration, the Dandelions entered retail stores in Edmonton two months ago, selected consumer goods for purchase and then told the store owners they could not buy them because they were unemployed and suggested that the retailers should write to their MLAs calling for job creation.

But apart from forcing some MLAs to cancel constituency meetings to avoid Dandelion disruptions, the leaders of the group concede that they have had little tangible impact on the government. Manpower Minister Ernie Isley contends that the province’s $2.7 billion worth of public works projects is the highest per capita construction spending in the country and is keeping the employment situation stable. Edmonton MLA Keith Alexander, who has had several private meetings with Dandelion members, told Maclean ’s: “ If buggy whips go out of style, buggy whip makers had better find another job.”

The Dandelions plan to broaden their appeal to make more electors aware of their grievances before the next provincial election, which is expected next spring. Their lobbying could affect the fortunes of the 17 Edmonton Tory MLAs in particular, many of whom won their ridings by slim margins in the 1982 election. “They’re scared,” said John Kavanagh, the Dandelions’ public relations co-ordinator. “They might be Dandelions after the next election.”^