By C. Rockarts
On Thursday, February 27, over 7,000 teachers, students, and public sector workers rallied in Edmonton in support of maintaining quality public services.
The ‘March for What Matters’ was hosted by a coalition of teachers, parents, artists and students. It was organized in response to cuts to education, health care and the looming privatization of public services by Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party (UCP).
In the past several months, the UCP has announced 7,000 public service job cuts, cuts to education and health care, as well as attacks on the right to protest. The UCP has also made moves to take control of public sector workers’ pension funds (Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund, Local Authorities Pensions Plan, and the Public Services Pension Plan) to make risky investments in Alberta’s fossil fuel industry.
The 2020 budget tabled yesterday will cut over 1,400 jobs, from acute cuts to post-secondary (400 jobs lost), education staff (244 jobs lost) government of Alberta (684 jobs lost), agriculture (277 jobs lost), and community and social services (136 jobs lost). 5% will be cut from the Population and Public Health budget, 6.3% cut from post-secondary operations, and a 13% cut to student aid. An estimated 17,436 full-time equivalent public-sector jobs (union and management positions in GOA, Boards & Agencies, Post-Secondary and AHS) are expected to be lost over the UCP’s term.
Despite promises to maintain education funding and a universally accessible, publicly funded health care system, Kenney has attacked education through moving away from a per-student funding model, with $681 million set to come out of school board reserves and own-source revenues. This comes on top of the already existing issues in education, including unsustainable class sizes, cuts to support for students with special needs, and curriculum changes that control messaging around climate change. Funding for advanced education has also been slashed, with $346 million cut from the total operating expenses and an end to the tuition freeze and increasing tuition by 6.9% over the next four years.
In an interview with CBC, Heather Quinn, an Edmonton Public School teacher and one of the organizers of the march stated: “The government has made it very clear that they’re not going to back down from cutting public sector workers or the public sector in general. We have to keep the pressure on. That’s what it comes down to”.
The UCP has also used the sham of the MacKinnon Panel Report and a review of Alberta Health Services (AHS), which was released earlier this month, to justify a 1.4% decrease to AHS. Parts of the view call for the increased contracting out and privatization of long-term care subsidiaries, housekeeping, food services, laundry, and non-emergency patient transportation as well as recommends reducing spending on staff pay by reducing overtime. The implications of the review are expected to be implemented in May.
Nicole Heron, Registered Nurse (RN) at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in the Intensive Care Unit in Edmonton described how continuing cuts to healthcare will negatively impact nurses: “I fear that continued cuts to staffing levels and cuts to resources are going to specifically negatively affect frontline staff and our patients.”
Privatization of health care workers is dangerous and leads to short staffing, increase in workplace violence, and the erosion of quality care. The government has announced that surgeries done in private clinics will increase by 30%, seeking to double the number of surgeries completed. Shifting money away from primary care will have disastrous consequences that will lead to a two-tier model that will only benefit those that can pay for health care.
Protests under attack
In another assault on the right to protest, Kenney tabled Bill 1, The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act on Tuesday. This bill was in response to the recent rail blockades in Edmonton and across the country in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The bill would subjugate individual protesters to fines of up to $10,000 and $25,000 for first and subsequent offences, with possible prison time of up to 6 months.
Juan Vargas Alba was among the speakers on Thursday, who spoke on post secondary issues and the need for solidarity across sectors and identities.
“Our struggle is tied together. Marching for what matters looks like marching for public education, for a curriculum that includes climate justice, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; it means inviting people to this rally and not being dishonest in that invitation.” said Vargas Alba, referencing criticism that march organizers had received regarding not letting Indigenous activists speak. “It means standing against Bill 1, because people who are fighting for their rights and fighting for justice don’t deserve to be criminalized.”
Calls for solidarity
Towards the end of the rally, Paige and Portia Morin, two Indigenous land defenders from the Dene Tha’ First Nation spoke on Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people (MMIW), and how Indigenous students have to leave their reserves and give up their cultural knowledge in order to get quality education.”
Do not tell us to get off the stage when there are land defenders being arrested for this cause. We came here in solidarity with you, because we know that you don’t agree with your pensions being taken to destroy our land and our futures,” said Morin, drawing a connection between the investment of Teacher’s pension plans into fossil fuel projects. “We call on you, that when we want to speak, you let us speak.”
This budget is completely dependent on the return of higher oil prices, with the Alberta government expecting oil production to increase by 170,000 barrels per day and and $1.5 billion dollars of investment expected in the oil and gas industry this year. As seen in the victory this past week of Teck Resources Ltd., withdrawing its application to build Frontier, a $20.6 billion open-pit mining project in northern Alberta, the market for fossil fuels is starting to be seen as a sunset industry.
Kenney ran on an anti-union platform, and will continue to decimate unions through pursuing right to work legislation, cutting jobs, and dividing workers against one another. In the coming months, workers in Alberta will have to organize on a mass scale if they want to stop the cuts. It is clear that the time for ineffective advertising campaigns and shallow lobbying efforts is coming to an end – Alberta has a rich history of strikes, wildcats and job action, and now is the time for the lessons of the past to be implemented.
On Wednesday, March 4 at 12:00 p.m., a solidarity action with Wet’suwet’en will be held at Beaver Hills House park in Edmonton. For more information, click here.