02/25/2015 06:19 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT

CUPE Manitoba backs Selinger in Manitoba NDP race, but some members don't follow

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger can't count on unanimous support from one of the province's biggest unions in the fight to keep his job.

The leadership of the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees has endorsed Selinger in the NDP leadership race that culminates with a vote March 8. But one of the union's delegates says he and others are voting for Theresa Oswald.

"Each individual of course has their own vote, and can vote as they see fit," said Darrin Cook, president of CUPE Local 4270, which represents 2,000 health-care workers in rural southern Manitoba.

"They don't have to follow any (union) leader coming out with their thoughts and views."

Cook said he is not alone, and there are a wide variety of views among CUPE members about which candidate to support.

CUPE is a major driver in any Selinger victory against Oswald, a former health minister, and Steve Ashton, a former infrastructure minister. CUPE Manitoba is entitled to up to 288 of 2,217 delegates that will cast ballots, and its president, Kelly Moist, has urged her members to vote for Selinger.

Cook said there has been no pressure from CUPE headquarters on his local or the dozens of others across the province.

"We have our own locals. We operate individually ... and the leadership is not pressuring at all."

Cook said his local is allowed 20 delegates at the leadership vote, but will only be able to fill 13 or 14 spots due to NDP rules that require each union delegate to be a member of a specific local and a party member.

Cook expects "a majority" of his delegates will vote for Oswald because of her seven-year record as health minister.

Selinger has received another big union endorsement — from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which is entitled to 160 delegates. But that union is not insisting its delegates follow.

Selinger may need all the union support he can get if he is to hang on to his job. Most of the delegates — about 1,300 — are being elected by NDP associations in the province's 57 constituencies and the party's youth wing, and Selinger has trailed behind his competitors since those elections started three weeks ago.

He was essentially forced into the leadership contest by a caucus revolt last October, when Oswald and four other senior cabinet ministers called on him to resign to help the party rebound in the polls. NDP support plummeted after the government raised the provincial sales tax in 2013.

An election is scheduled for April 2016 and Oswald has said she is the party's best chance to win. Ashton, a former infrastructure minister who did not take part in the revolt, has touted himself as the best person to reunite the divided party.