Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) has claimed that he will lay out the “most detailed election platform in the province’s history“. His election would mean a full frontal assault on workers and the environment.
The current NDP government has yet to announce the date of the 2019 provincial election, but the writ is expected to drop March 18, with the election taking place mid-April. While the UCP has not won yet, the polls reflect that a new government is likely.
Jason Kenney’s agenda
Kenney, who has been involved in politics since 1997, has called himself a Ralph Klein Conservative. Klein’s reign was marked by privatization, the gutting of public services and attacks on workers through vicious anti-union laws. The UCP’s rhetoric has been consistent with austerity, privatization, and attacking the environment, minimum wage, and rights for LGBTQ+ people.
Kenney has pledged that the first piece of legislation the UCP will pass is the repeal of the carbon tax. The UCP would repeal both the Climate Leadership Plan and the Renewable Electricity Act, which has used revenues to pay for transition initiatives to a lower carbon economy. He has discussed the “higher taxes and more red tape” and “foreign funded special interest” groups blocking Alberta’s energy sector.
Kenney has been careful to not explicitly say that there will be cuts to healthcare, using the rhetoric of hearing from front-line workers about the “waste in the administrative centre of our system”. Despite that he has signed the Public Health Guarantee and claimed that he will maintain or increase health spending and a universally, accessibly funded health care system, he has compared Alberta’s healthcare system to BC’s , stating that health care is 20% more costly in Alberta, stating that private healthcare is faster than public healthcare. Given that Alberta has the lowest administration costs for healthcare in the country, Kenney’s promise to ‘balance the budget’ by 2021 indicates there is little doubt he will attack frontline healthcare workers, patient access to services, and threaten the public healthcare system.
What’s at stake for Alberta workers
If elected, Jason Kenney’s “summer of repeals” will roll back some of the biggest reforms the NDP have passed during their time in office.
Prior to the NDP’s election in 2015, Alberta’s labour and employment laws were widely acknowledged to be the most employer friendly in the country, with the lowest minimum wage, lowest unionization rate, highest rates of occupational injury, and one of the lowest rates on injury reporting.
Kenney has strongly supported Restaurants Canada and the business lobby’s call to reinstate a lower minimum wage for liquor servers and young workers. The UCP leader has a history of criticism towards increasing the minimum wage since the NDP passed labour reforms in 2017. Kenney has pledged that the party “will take immediate steps within days, should we be given a mandate by Albertans to show Canada and the world that Alberta is open for business again”.
The alarmingly familiar sounding “Open for Business Act”, plans to not only push through a lower minimum wage for liquor servers and young and disabled workers, but also repeal statutory holiday pay, return surpluses in the WCB to employers, and repeal Bill 6, which under the NDP brought in enhanced protections for farmworkers.
The implications of repealing Bill 6 will be disastrous for farm and ranch workers who are only now beginning to get adequate compensation for workplace injuries. Taking away these protections will give employers the leeway to violate health and safety regulations and lead to under-reporting of injuries, which will put the burden back on workers to make claims and exercise their rights to a safe workplace.
The UCP is also targeting the public school system, promising to expand “school choice” and cancel the curriculum review that the NDP launched in 2015. Kenney has called the curriculum update a ‘political agenda’ and ‘ideological’, and has said in the past that he believes homeschooling is better than sending children to public schools.
Finally, the United Conservative Party has also pledged to restore the Klein era flat tax on income, cutting taxes for corporations, which will ensure that those at the highest income pay a lower tax rate and ultimately make low-income workers more vulnerable.
Amidst allegations that Jason Kenney participated in identity fraud and illegal donations that led to his success in the 2017 UCP leadership race, Alberta workers must be wary of the populist anti-union rhetoric that he has used throughout his career. His plans to reinstate secret ballots for union-certification votes, freeze and lower the minimum wage, and make affordable public services increasingly more difficult to access will only further harm the most marginalized workers in Alberta.
While the UCP looks set tio win the election, there is still time to push back against Kenney’s agenda. If unions plan on solely resisting Kenney by encouraging their members to vote for the NDP, there is little hope for workers. No matter who is elected, Alberta’s labour movement needs to get ready to organize a broader fight back against the agenda of Kenney and the big business interests in Alberta. If labour organizations can lead with the issues that actually concern workers, and have honest conversations about the impact of policies on the workplace, workers will have a chance to put employers and the right-wing on their back heels no matter the outcome of the election.