by Emily Leedham and Chloe Rockarts
As the provincial election approaches, Alberta’s unions are hard at work educating their members about what is at stake for workers at the ballot box. While many unions identify as non-partisan, most have still expressed concerns about the right-wing populism sweeping across the country – and its implications for organized labour.
Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) just released its comprehensive Alberta election platform, which features policy taken straight from the business lobby’s mouth. Key points include: freezing the minimum wage at $15 while introducing a $13 youth minimum wage, eliminating 1.5 overtime pay, restoring secret ballot certification, and wedging the door open for “right-to-work” laws. The UCP has also stated its intention to expand private Charter schools, allow school administrators to out LGBTQ+ students to their parents, and further privatize healthcare services.
Voting is one of many tactics Alberta’s workers have used to fight back against the business lobby’s agenda. Workers in Alberta and across Canada have a long history of utilizing strikes, walkouts and other forms of mobilization to fight for workers’ rights and protect public services.
RankandFile.ca had conversations with several leaders of Alberta’s public sector unions to understand the past, present and future of building worker power in Alberta.
We talked to Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE), Greg Jeffery, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), and Mike Parker, president of Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA).
RankandFile.ca also reached out to the United Nurses of Alberta and Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta, but both declined to participate.
Jason Kenney openly cites inspiration from Ralph Klein, Alberta’s premier who served for 14 years from 1992-2006. Klein’s mission to get Alberta’s “fiscal house in order”, resulted in cutting healthcare spending by 21%, blowing up a Calgary hospital, and privatizing crown corporations like Alberta Energy Company and Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission. These cuts were not only devastating for many workers in the 90s, but had lasting effects on child poverty, domestic violence, wage disparity, and the gender wage gap.
“In the 90s we as a union were not – we didn’t have the culture to mobilize and stand up and fight back on a mass basis, and look what happened when we weren’t prepared in the 90s,” AUPE president Guy Smith reflects. “So we are drawing lessons from back then as a potential scenario for what might happen, but we’re also drawing from our more recent history of when we did successfully fight back against the previous conservative government.”
HSAA president Mike Parker recalls that Klein’s attacks on labour utilized manipulation and deception. When HSAA was in the middle of bargaining, the Klein government offered a 5% wage rollback in exchange for public sector workers being able to keep their jobs.
“At the end of the day, not only did we get a 5% rollback, but we got a government that basically ripped out our healthcare system, stopped investing in it, and mass layoffs across the province in all sectors of healthcare,” Parker says. “I would argue that today we are still paying for that action from over 20 years ago.”
The Klein government waged war on public education as well, introducing charter schools and increasing private school funding to 70%, while cutting public teachers salaries by 5%. This onslaught against workers resulted in one of the largest demonstrations in Alberta’s history – organized by the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
“In 1997 in October, more than 17,000 demonstrated on the lawn of the Alberta legislature, which I believe is the largest demonstrations in the history of our province. I have a large print of it from an aerial view on my office wall here, when people come into my office for the first time, they like to point out where they were in the crowd on that afternoon.” says ATA president Greg Jeffery.
The mobilization didn’t happen overnight. It took 4 years of Klein being in power and countless cuts for labour to fight back and organize. But the ATA’s 1997 demonstration set the stage for 2002’s massive teachers strike. Around 16,000 teachers making up 22 bargaining units, all struck at once, demanding a 20% increase in wages and smaller class sizes. Klein legislated the teachers back to work, but the court quashed the order. The ATA then entered into binding arbitration and were awarded a 14% wage increase and a task force to study classroom conditions.
Parker believes mass actions from labour ultimately contributed to the end of the 42 year Progressive Conservative dynasty. In 2014, public sector workers held 30 rallies in one day to protest then-premier Alison Redford’s attacks on pension plans.
“For a government to think that that is just a budget line that they can erase or modify was wrong,” he says, “and it was fought back from all sectors of labour to set the stage for the end of the conservative 40 year reign. That’s what it ended up leading to.”
Labour under the NDP
Up until 2015, Alberta had one of the most employer-friendly labour regimes in the country, with many parts of the labour code not being touched since the 70s and 80s, according to labour studies professor Dr. Bob Barnetson. The Alberta NDP has since overhauled this regime, raising the minimum wage, giving public sector workers the right to strike, implementing card check certification, remedial certification, and made changes to health and safety laws and workers compensation. But as extensive as these changes were, they only really brought Alberta’s labour laws up to par with the rest of the country. There also remains a lack of infrastructure to properly enforce many of these policy changes.
Smith acknowledges the strides the NDP have made in labour law, but notes there are some areas where they could have gone further. Public sector workers are governed under the Public Services Employees Relation Act, and while this act has been adapted, Smith believes it should be dissolved and incorporated into the broader Labour Relations Code. He also would like to see legislation banning scab labour.
The Alberta NDP has also not been immune to right wing influence, using the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility to impose a two-year wage freeze for 23,000 public sector workers.
Parker says HSAA members remain concerned about their ability to provide “holistic” care for patients. Pharma and dental care would help make the healthcare system all-inclusive. And after years of cuts under the PCs, it will take more public investment to get patient care to where is should be.
“It’s becoming more and more today an assembly line,” he says. “Where we are just trying to meet targets that are being set by employers. Health care is never about meeting targets or getting X number of people through the door that day – it’s providing the care that the people need.”
In education, the Alberta NDP has implemented a new bargaining model for Alberta teachers. Collective agreements are bargained in two stages – the first has teachers bargaining high cost items like salaries and benefits directly with the government, and then smaller cost items with individual school boards. Jeffery has said this is overall less complex than the previous model, although some locals have had issues with school board bargaining, like St. Paul’s which issued a strike notice in December.
The ATA is in the middle of central bargaining with the provincial government – meaning negotiations will resume with whichever party forms government after April 16.
Jeffery believes education hasn’t been getting enough public attention.
“Right now we’re not seeing it having as high a profile, we’re seeing things like pipelines and the economy on Albertan voter’s minds, but we need to remind them of the value of their public education system.”
Addressing White Supremacy
As a colonial state, Canada has white supremacy baked into its culture. In Alberta, white supremacists have a history of forming organizations to further their ideals. The Klu Klux Klan boasted around 7,000 members by 1930. While the Klan dissipated, other organizations took their place – like the Aryan Guard and Blood and Honour. Recently, white supremacist groups like the Canadian Infidels and the iii% have made headlines for their increased militant activity, including mosque patrols and militia training. The Rebel Media, which platforms white supremacists like Faith Goldy and Keean Bexte, is based in Alberta. And Alberta’s Yellow Vest movement has amplified white nationalist rhetoric through the mainstream media.
Jason Kenney has rejected the notion that his party is a magnet for white supremacists, despite the Soldiers of Odin literally showing up to a UCP meet n’ greet and taking photos with candidates. One of the UCP’s star candidates, Caylan Ford, resigned after comments lamenting “the demographic replacement of white peoples in their homelands” were made public. PressProgress has compiled a list of 30 UCP candidates who have promoted hateful or extremist views.
Preventing Kenney and the UCP from taking office, however, will not not prevent these white supremacist groups from continuing to organize. They will continue to promote their racist rhetoric and demonstrations in the name of “free speech.”
Guy Smith acknowledges organized white supremacists are serious and believes labour can play an important role in countering those movements.
“I’ve been involved in anti-racist work during my many years of activism and I’ve seen first hand how intimidating that can be, and scary, quite honestly,” he says. “Especially if you feel isolated in it. That’s why it’s so important to have the power of masses behind it, because that’s the way we can protect each other as we take on these very serious issues and shut it down.”
He also notes many AUPE members and staff have been involved in protesting Yellow Vest groups. However, he says there is more outreach and education to be done to break down barriers within the diverse AUPE membership.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve been able to mobilize our members in a mass way yet, but I would like to get to that point, where those odious perspectives of the far right are drowned out by sheer volume of workers standing together.”
The NDP invested 64 million in a six year overhaul of Alberta’s K-12 public school curriculum, citing many aspects have not been updated for 30 or 40 years. Some significant updates include content on climate change, gender diversity and First Nations history. Kenney has criticized the curriculum review as “ideological” and intends to scrap many of the NDP’s changes.
“Certainly the position of teachers in Alberta, the best defense against hate crimes, against hate propaganda, any of that sort of thing, the best defense is education,” Jeffery states.
But funding cuts create barriers for teachers to support marginalized students, he adds. Large class sizes and lack of resources for tailored programming for students with special needs, such as physical and learning disabilities, and English as a Second Language programming puts students at a disadvantage.
“While Alberta teachers support inclusion in the classroom,” he says,“those special needs kids need to have support in order for them to do well. So we’re really quite concerned about the supports available for inclusion.”
Parker believes the HSAA needs to be doing more outreach and education on anti-racist initiatives. The union currently has programs supporting Syrian refugees and Truth and Reconciliation training for members, but concludes, “At the end of the day, we haven’t done enough.”
The 2019 Election – and Beyond
All three unions are running public awareness campaigns for the election involving phone banking, online education, public forums, membership surveys and leafleting. But union leaders acknowledge organizing around election time is just one piece of the puzzle in the fight for a better working conditions and public services.
“Our role as a union is to prepare our members… in any number of ways (campaigns, lobbying, potential job action) to fight back against things that damage their work and services to Albertans,” says Smith.
“I would say that as we’re going forward, labour is looking at polls, they’re looking at the world of tomorrow, and I’ll tell you right now, I will do everything I can to work with a government whose labour friendly, who understands the needs of our membership and the citizens of this province,” Parker states,” If the day comes where that changes, we are prepared to go back to the old days and defends our workers rights and freedoms and that will be a new world.”
Kenney has promised a “summer of repeal” should he get elected. That doesn’t leave much time for organizing mass mobilization. As we’ve seen in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, right wing leaders waste little time attacking labour and dismantling the public sector.
While we do not intend to predict the outcome of the Alberta election, we do believe the labour movement across Canada needs to be strong enough to fight and win under right wing governments. To believe we are helpless under Conservatives is exactly what Conservatives want workers to think. Reflecting on our history and applying lessons to the present can help us develop the strength and solidarity we need to fight back – and win a better Alberta for all workers.