Bill Stewart: Freedom Fighter

Yesterday, we said goodbye to our friend, Bill Stewart.  Stephen Kushner delivered his eulogy, which i’ve posted below for the people who were not able to make it to his memorial service.

But before you read the eulogy, I encourage you to read his own message written 40 years ago as High School Student’s Union President – Bill’s values and beliefs have clearly never changed – he trully was a Freedom Fighter who believed in personal responsibility and we will carry his legacy on!

Bill Stewart

Goodbye friend – you will be missed!

Stephen’s words begin here:

Where do I begin, Bill? Where should I start? And how can I do this without your wise counsel, your editing, your way with words? Listen, you do the first draft, I’ll do the second, we will let it age for a few days and we will go from there. These were my thoughts when Bill’s family honored me with the request to capture Bill’s life, his joys, his sorrows, his accomplishments, his loves. Well, Bill, let’s start at the beginning.

Bill was born to Ruth Hanna and Robert Stewart on December 31, 1956, some almost 57 years ago. They were a family of five with brother Doug and sister Fran. Fran and Bill were both strong minded individuals enjoying the frequent tussle of political debates and discussions. Doug was the out doorsie type and Bill, Doug, and their father enjoyed many a fall outing in duck season. Bill’s mother, Ruth, instilled in Bill a love for history and perhaps had a hand in Bill pursuing a history major in order to ensure his mother’s discussions were not of a revisionist nature. Summers were easy times at the cottage in Lac La Non, fishing, and enjoying carefree summer days.

Around the family table, discussions of politics were frequent and enthusiastic, but Sundays were more refined with afternoons of bridge. Family was number one for Bill’s parents and these values were deeply instilled in Bill and values that he passed on to his own three children. And what beautiful children they are: Leah, Sheena, and Kristen. For Bill, nothing was more important than his girls. Raising his children to be caring, generous, compassionate, and self-reliant was so important to Bill and boy did Bill and his first wife, Joanne Blackstock, ever hit a home run in raising these three gorgeous daughters.

Leah, the most like her father, remembers the small things. Like walks to the park and hot chocolate after tobogganing or going to the candy store with a dollar and seeing how much candy she could buy. Bill instilled values in Leah that she holds precious to this day and Bill was so proud of her choice in her husband, Jeff Yanew, and first grandson, Nathan.

And Sheena loved her travels with her dad. A highlight was their trip together to Vegas to see Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and that special moment when they bumped into Graham Nash and Bill was able to get a picture with one of his music idols. The trip to Thailand and Cambodia was truly special and Bill regaled the office with stories about how much fun he had getting drunk with his daughter, going to the Tiger farm, and that 150 km multi-bus 9 hour trip in Cambodia. Sheena, your dad was so happy when you fulfilled your childhood dream to get an education degree and he would often talk of your wonderful marriage to Grant and the business conquests and how excited he was about the youngest addition, Oliver, to the Stewart-Sanderson clan.

Kristen, you know you were the most challenging for your dad. You knew how to get your dad going, push his buttons, and for some period he wasn’t really sure how you would turn out. But I can tell you, because I know, how so very happy your dad was about your marriage to Josh Durwood and how sensational a mother you have turned into for both Anthony and Rayleigh.

And here is a little tidbit about Bill. He would find time to call his girls every day and have a chat because his daughters were always on his mind and in his heart. But enough said about the girls, husbands, and grandchildren.

It is time to talk about another of Bill’s abiding passions, Saturday morning grocery shopping. Grocery shopping for Bill and his girls was a Saturday routine executed with the efficiency of a well run political campaign. First you did the data analysis of the constituency (read the flyers for the best bargains). Then you plotted out the route where you could get the most votes (figured out which stores you were going to visit). He gathered the volunteers (rounded up the girls). Once the door knocking (shopping) was completed, back to the campaign office (home) to close up shop until the next campaign (unload the groceries). And then start all over again when the next election is called (go shopping when the food runs out). Yes, for Bill, shopping and politics were strategic activities: not for the faint of heart and completed knowing full well that the state of the nation (ensuring two well stocked freezers) was at stake.

Weekends at the Stewarts were special times and Sunday evenings were everyone’s favorite. Bill would do the cooking and on Monday mornings I would hear about his gastronomical successes. Sunday dinners were compulsory family time together where laughter and easy conversations were the norm. And political discussions were strictly forbidden. For any of the other six nights, political discussions were fair game, but not Sunday family dinners.

I mentioned, Joanne, Bill’s first wife and I must tell you more about Joanne and Bill, family, and values. Joanne and Bill were married for some 11  years. And while the marriage did not last, the friendship did. Joanne and Bill held family dinners together on Sundays long after their marriage ended and Bill said to me that they remained best of friends. Bill was the rock for the family and he continued to be a rock for Joanne. Joanne cared deeply for Bill and when Bill had a brief illness Joanne could be called on at any hour of the day and night to help her friend Bill. And Bill was so compassionate to Joanne when she was diagnosed with lung cancer and Bill was there. Joanne’s last months were spent initially with Leah and then with Bill at his home where he comforted, cared for and supported her to her last day. You see, Joanne was Bill’s friend and for Bill, friends take care for each other.

Bill, it’s time to get serious and talk about how you got to play in your sandbox every day for the past 23 years. So, my turn to talk about our beginning. I met Bill through student politics in grade 10. Bill was the President of his high school and I was the grade 10 representative. Bill was already a political pro, having been a VP in junior high in grade 7 and president of his student council by grade 9.

Yes, his political skills and successes started early and he loved people, ideas, social causes, righting wrongs and injustices. Bill loved politics. That was his passion.

Our friendship got deeper in University. Bill rushed with Phi Delta Theta fraternity and I followed two years later.

Bill was a Political Science and History major, pursuing an Arts degree and we decided to join forces and run on a slate as 2 Arts representatives on Students’ Council. We were told we were the under dogs with no chance of winning. But what do pundits really know? One year after winning that election, we combined forces once more to run for the Executive of the U of Alberta Students’ Council; Bill as president, I ran as a VP, and a person Bill suggested run with us as another VP joined our team – my future wife, Kaysi. After Students’ Council, Bill went west to pursue a Masters in Public Administration at the U of Victoria.

We kep t in touch. Bill moved north with the Territorial government in Yellowknife and later Rankin Inlet, then left to the big city of Toronto working for the Ministry of Housing for the Ontario government. Bill loved his work and worked long, hard hours.

We continued to keep in touch over the years. And in 1989 Bill visited Edmonton and I told Bill about a new position that opened up, Executive Director for the Merit Contractors’ Association in Saskatchewan. I remember Bill saying, “What do I know about labor relations?” I said, “No problem, you will learn” and wow, did he ever.  In 1998, Bill joined Merit Contractors’ Association of Alberta as its General Manage and later became Vice President Government Relations. As VP, Bill got to play in his sandbox every day, from early morning and often until late in the evening and on weekends.

You see, politics was Bill’s passion. His driving force in life was to make a difference, to make the world a better place. The Merit philosophy of self-reliance, of reward for hard work, of taking care of your people with fair wages, benefits, pensions, and opportunities resonated deeply with Bill’s core values.  Bill found a place where values, beliefs, passion, and work melded together.

Bill immersed himself in politics and in work, contributing to public policy development in construction, authoring over 30 articles for Merit’s Open Mind magazine as Bill was an exceptional writer. At the same time, he sat on Conservative Association boards provincially and federally, served as President of the Calder PC Association, and was active in too many political campaigns to mention. Yes, Bill has knocked on more doors supporting candidates than many sitting MLAs.

And Bill contributed to many many successful elections, sat on numerous committees, was always up for a discussion be it internal party reform or the big issues relating to debt, health care, or education. He touched the lives of hundreds of politicians, aides, bureaucrats, and campaign volunteers. He could just as easily engage the premier or future prime minister in a political discussion as he could Merit’s custodian, Nicolas, or any of the administrative staff at Merit. Bill was a people person with no pretensions and he had time for anyone. He was genuine, sincere, and loved a good discussion or debate. He also gave his time generously to The Hope Mission, The Mustard Seed and Women Building Futures.

Michael Cooper, who is running for the federal Conservative nomination in St. Albert was Bill’s most recent rising star and he was already working hard to help this bright young Conservative lawyer begin a political career.

Bill was no stranger to achieving success. And what was success for Bill? You see, Bill was a Free Enterprise Freedom Fighter. In his Twitter account, he also claims to be an aspiring food and wine connoisseur of the gluten free persuasion. Our Bill was no aspiring freedom fighter, he was the real McCoy.

Bill believed in worker choice legislation, union transparency, workers’ controlling how their dues could be spent, and secret ballot votes, and respect for democracy in the workplace.

He was thrilled to see the Federal Conservatives embrace these policies, the provincial PCs adopt some of these in their last election platform, and Wild Rose Party endorse some of these policies just a few weeks ago at their convention.

As a freedom fighter, Bill was a man of ideas, a persion of deep belief and conviction. And his way of changing the world was through political activism. Ideas are powerful and Bill was a freedom fighter extraordinaire.

Bill was respectful of those who gave their lives in battle and November 11th Remembrance Days were always very important for Bill. He would wear a poppy and attend one or more ceremonies honoring our fallen soldiers. Bill’s life was devoted to fighting injustice, and for me, November 11th, the day Bill passed on, will always be a more meaningful memorial day. I will think fondly of a very special freedom fighter. Enough of political battles and wars and fallen heroes.

It is time to get on with the really good stuff: Bill the romantic.  My good friend had fallen deeply in love with his new wife, Vera Leanovitch. So, now I get to tell you about a love story. While on a European October Fest vacation, 5 years ago, Bill was visiting a museum in Prague and was distracted by a beautiful woman who spoke English with an exotic accent. His itinerary was quickly changed to include a visit to Belorussia. I remember him returning from that trip and speaking about Belorussia and I was quite confused as to why a person doing an October Fest trip would end up in Bellerose.

This began a beautiful love story with some eight rendezvous to Bellerusse and other trips to Budapest, Vienna, Krakow, Barcelona, Banff, Jasper, Vancouver, Victoria, and Calgary.

When separated, Bill and Vera would talk daily on skype. On a romantic trip to the beautiful city of Budapest, on one knee Bill proposed, holding out a wedding ring. And once Vera figured out what he had just mumbled, she said “of course!”

And so began a wonderful transformation. Bill and Vera were married for a little over two years and were together in Canada for fourteen months. And those fourteen months were the longest honeymoon I have ever observed.

Bill and Vera were deeply in love and the logical, political activist was also a passionate, considerate, gentle, kind loving husband.

Vera talks of how sweet Bill made sure that there were fresh flowers on the table every day for her, how they found joy in each other’s company. Simply, these two were deeply in love.

And, oh, how we saw changes in Bill at the office. Bill had an extra bounce in his step. He went from being an OK dresser to a sharp dresser. Even Premier Redford once complimented Bill on one of the new sweaters that Vera had picked out.

Bill would often go home for lunch to spend that extra hour with Vera. He could even be seen leaving the office as early as 5 pm.

The Merit family saw a person who had always been upbeat, now  glow, excited about life and all its possibilities, talking about his new love, Vera, and planning for their future together.

Planning meant dancing lessons for old twinkle toes every Tuesday night, and Russian language classes so that Bill could better engage with Vera’s family.

And speaking of Vera’s family, I must tell you the story of when Bill stole Vera from her family, he wrote the kindest, warmest letter to the family promising that he would take care of their Vera and that they should not worry as she was precious and would find happiness in her new home. That was the kind of person Bill was.

Hey, Bill, I have probably talked long enough and said some things I shouldn’t have. I know from now on any help from you will be of the inspirational type. So, we ALL will have to manage with one less freedom fighter on the ground, but with one more angel on our shoulders. Good bye my dear friend.

Amend the Labour Code to eliminate unethical bid subsidy schemes

Before Christmas I wrote a blog titled, Top 10 Reasons to Amend the Alberta Labour Code, where I broadly laid out 10 public policy recommendations that are needed to make Alberta’s labour relations environment more competitive and fair.  The purpose of that blog was to introduce the topics. Over the coming weeks, I will be writing specific blogs about each idea.  I look forward to your comments – Alberta can be better; here are some ideas on how to get there.

I will start this series with recommendation 9, which reads:

Recommendation 9: Improve Alberta Labour Code provisions that address market enhancement recovery fund (“MERFs”), which are illegal bid subsidy schemes.

A practice occurs in Alberta whereby union construction companies in industrial markets (ie. Alberta’s oilsands) unfairly subsidize construction projects in commercial markets (A Calgary 7-11 store).  Under this complicated scheme, Alberta’s construction prices become inflated and less competitive, and Albertans receive less royalty revenue from its heavy industrial projects.  It’s a bad deal all around, especially since the only reason for this practice is to increase the market share of less competitive unionized construction companies.

In Alberta these bid subsidy schemes have been labelled “Market Enhancement Recovery Funds” (MERF).  They have also been called “Job Targeting Funds” (JTF) or “Stabilization Funds” (STAB).  Regardless of what you call them, they are all, in the words of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), “part of a strong organizing program aimed at securing monopoly of local labour markets.”

These schemes developed in Alberta because of high energy prices and our province’s rapidly expanding economy.  As the economy expanded, building trade unions such as the IBEW and the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union (UA) convinced some major oilsands project developers to grant them labour supply monopolies to build the projects.  The projects provided the financial means for exploiting faults in Alberta’s Labour Relations Code.

Here is how the schemes work:

In Alberta the schemes were initially created through collective agreements between unions and unionized employers.  Unionized contractors were required to remit part of their negotiated wages (up to $2.32/hr) to a union controlled fund. This fund was then available to other unionized contractors, which could apply for a subsidy on a project-by-project basis.  In some cases, the hour rate subsidy was estimated to be as high as $15 per hour multiplied by the total estimated hours of labour required for the projects.

The lion’s share of the financing came from large energy projects whereby unions were given labour supply monopolies. So why would oilsands companies agree to pay higher labour costs?

Part of the answer lies in Alberta’s royalty regime.  Alberta’s royalty structure allows for industrial project developers to pay lower royalties to the Alberta government until the capital cost of the project are recovered.  Essentially, this occurred because some large oilsands developers willingly paid a premium on their multibillion-dollar construction projects in a very hot economy to gain access to pools of unionized tradespeople.

The Government of Alberta recognized that this unfair scheme is a bad deal for Alberta taxpayers and in 2008 legislators introduced Bill 26 to end the practice.  Alberta’s new law sought to restrict how MERFs were collected and distributed.  Direct payments from employers to unions and unions to contractors to undercut the bids of more competitive contractors were prohibited.

Despite this legislation, the respective Building Trade Unions (BTU) immediately developed new schemes to circumvent the law.  In fact, within 6 weeks from when the Act became the law, one BTU Business Manager reported to members that it was “business as usual” and that the union would “have in place an alternative way of ensuring that (unionized) contractors will be competitive for this work.”  Some unionized contractors also mentioned anecdotally that relief was being provided under “something we don’t call a MERF anymore.”

In time, the various collective agreements were amended and the picture became clearer. While the names of the MERF’s were changed, the amount of monies that contractors were required to pay into newly created funds remained the same. As an example, the collective agreement between the Electrical Contractors Association of Alberta and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 424 prior to the 2008 legislation was referred to as the Market Target Recovery Trust Funds (MTRF) and the amount contractors were required to contribute to the fund was $.93 per straight time hour worked by each journeymen. In the subsequent collective agreement, the formerly referenced MTRF became the “Membership Development Fund” and the amount contractors remained obligated to remit continued to be $.93 per straight time hour worked by each journeyman.

Unions also got creative in how they distributed the money.  In one collective agreement, the previously named MERF was renamed, the Promotion of the Insulation Trade Trust or PITT. The hourly contribution rate remained unchanged at $.50 per straight time hour worked.

What did change can be found in a “Letter of Understanding” attached to and forming part of the revised collective agreement.  After agreeing that, “non-signatory contractors operating in the commercial/institutional sector do not offer Health and Welfare and Pension packages to their workforce equivalent to those contained in the collective agreement” the parties acknowledged that “the added cost of maintaining the agreement, ha[d] a negative impact on the ability of signatory contractors to compete, secure work and offer gainful employment opportunities to members of the union”. This problem is then dealt with in the final paragraph stating, “all current and future commercial work may, at the Employer’s discretion be enabled by waiving the Employer’s obligation to contribute on behalf of its employees to the Health and Welfare and the Pension Plan.” In other words the MERF no longer directly subsidizes wages; the subsidy is used to pay for health, welfare and pension plan benefits.

In the case of the Insulators, the value of this relief is equivalent to $6.50 per hour worked. This is concerning since charges for vacations, pensions and other funds are approximately 30% to 33% of the basic negotiated hourly “wage rate”. Under normal bidding conditions, these costs are added to the hourly charge a contractor would include in a bid estimate.

The legislation passed in 2008 was clearly intended to end “subsidizing the bids, tenders, fees or prices of” unionized construction contractors. A subsidy is a subsidy is a subsidy.

This unfair bid subsidy scheme is both increasing the cost of construction in Alberta and reducing the amount of royalty revenue being collected by the government.  The only purpose of these schemes is to increase the market share of less competitive union contractors.  Alberta needs to amend its labour code to end this unsavory practice once and for all.

PP