Monday, 23 February 2015


 “…if you are looking for some money, why don’t you delay the monies you are paying out to Muskrat Falls…a significant amount of money…”

These are words of Carol Furlong, Head of the Province’s largest public sector union, NAPE, giving advice to the Davis Government on NTV, Feb. 13th.

Furlong continued her expostulation: “We have a war chest now…combined assets… of more than $40 million…I can assure Government, if they believe they can just lay off workers …they will feel the brunt of NAPE to the full capacity of our finances.”

These are heavily laden statements. One would be foolish to think them merely drum beating in advance of a contested leadership.

Carol Furlong has done what the Head of no other Union, political party, or business organization has considered.  To her membership and to NTV’s large listener audience, she has telegraphed a stark message, one slow in its evolution, perhaps, but powerful in its timing and implication: ‘I no longer have faith in the Muskrat Falls project’.

Her comments strike like lightening, as if from a latter day Saul: ACTS 9:18 “And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized…” 

NAPE President Carol Furlong
Had Furlong spoken early against Muskrat, her remarks might have constituted the familiar ring of a naysayer. But, until now, her resolve to stay the course contained a strength of biblical proportion.

Readers will remember Furlong stayed silent on Muskrat Falls, two years ago, when Jerome Kennedy laid-off 1200 public servants. He said he did it to reduce the deficit from $1.6 billion to $563.8 million, if no action was taken. The painful jolt exhibited the limitations of government finances and how they are inextricably linked to financial security for NAPE and other public sector employees. 

It would have been timely, then, for Ms. Furlong to reassess the Union's position.  She could have demanded a stop work order placed on the project. But NAPE did no such thing. Furlong had faith in Muskrat Falls, a faith so solid that she kept silent for two more critical years…..until Feb. 13th, 2015. The refusal of 'big labour' to use their collective clout likely saw the project proceed beyond the point of no return.

In this context, it is not hard to see why Furlong’s timing is perplexing.  Her outburst surely cannot be motivated by the drop in the price of oil, alone. She and other Union heads, in concert with the St. John’s Board of Trade and Opposition Parties, all believed Muskrat Falls was a money maker; a sure-fire bet. Those who castigated its wonky economics were thought outliers, or worse; unpatriotic. 

Even when the critics seemed to be making headway on the issue of cost overruns, the politicians chimed in: “It doesn’t matter. It is ours”.

Still, the Unions stayed silent; ostensibly taken in by the “great conjuror”.  But, that is a matter for analysis, later.

Presently, her tune conveys an abiding horror; such was the stridency of her outburst. The Union Leader was saying: ‘let’s put Muskrat on ice until we can figure out how badly it will suck the government dry and threaten public sector workers’. ‘Shutting it down’ is hardly a position consistent with any profit model advanced by Nalcor.

What has, caused this sudden loss of faith? Why would she break with her sister Unions and virtually everyone else, to dismiss the Muskrat Falls project?

What does she know to which the public has not been made privy?

Are reports coming back to Union Offices from Nalcor or from the Muskrat Falls construction site confirming what others have reported: Nalcor’s productivity is extremely low; there are delays in the schedule, the cost overruns are unbearable?

Is the problem even worse than we suspect?

NAPE, CUPE, RNUNL, and NLTA confidence in Ed Martin and Kathy Dunderdale was always befuddling. While Unions feign opposition to the self-serving decisions of private business, they, too, understand the importance of survival. They are sophisticated organizations. They have access to large amounts of money; a $25 million strike fund, $40 million of assets confirms NAPE’s heft.

Unions are, in fact, large businesses. They are in the media every other day assessing public policy issues, warning against lay-offs and promoting better public services; all in the interest of job security and expanding the membership. In the case of Muskrat Falls, too, they would have made a calculation. 

Ironically, not NAPE, or CUPE or any of the public sector unions, but the RDTC, IBEW, Labourers’ and Rock and Tunnel Unions are the major beneficiaries of those jobs.

The critics may have used a different metric to arrive at a conclusion the project should be condemned. But public sector unions knew that if Muskrat got in trouble the government would look to their members; first, to their jobs, to their wages next, and, if things went seriously awry, to their pension plans. No benefit would be sacred. 

Public employees represent the largest percentage of government expenditures. Alberta already has the sector is in its cross hairs; Saskatchewan is expected to follow suit. 

To her credit, Ms. Furlong is showing leadership; she is not in hiding, as are the Opposition Parties, business organizations, and other public sector unions, too. Gone is any ideological glue or deference to the partisan divide within her ranks. Rather than an investment to which dividends are attached, she now believes Muskrat Falls is a money pit. 

But having changed her mind, Ms. Furlong ought to share with us what caused this Damascene moment; what caused the ‘scales to fall from her eyes’ affording her such unexpectedly sudden enlightenment?

Carol Furlong owes her membership and the rest of us that much.