Photo via REUTERS/Chris Wattie
by C Rockarts
On Saturday, March 28, two days before workers were set to return from Spring Break, the UCP government announced the province’s largest mass layoff in history, with $128 million in cuts to funding for 26,000 educational assistants, bus drivers, substitute teachers and other K-12 support staff. The government says the cuts are temporary so money can be “re-allocated to support Alberta’s COVID-19 response.”
Since March 15, COVID-19 has escalated in Alberta, with the government announcing mass closures of schools, forcing parents to come up with alternative education programming via distance learning. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has removed funding for school districts for May and June, after promising that schools would receive their full funding two weeks prior. Alberta was the first province to cancel provincial assessment tests, with Grade 12 students set to take diploma exams at the end of the school year and graduate if eligible. No news has been released on how this will be possible.
Around 16,000 Educational Assistants (EAs) have been providing continuity for students with learning (dis)abilities, autism, and mental health issues, while classes continue online. For many students, their needs increase with challenges that come with distance learning. The EAs have been callously deemed “non-essential” by the government, despite the critical support they have given to teachers since schools were closed. EAs distribute materials to students that don’t have access to virtual learning, set up online support meetings, make home calls and support teachers with producing online course materials.
These workers provide critical one-on-one relationships and emotional and academic support to at-risk students. Randi W, an Educational Assistant, has been doing this work with Edmonton students, including teaching ASL, identifying animal tracks, and supporting students with science experiments. In her division, they have laid off all temps and that were covering leaves for other educational workers.
“I was very upset [when the layoffs were announced] because we have contracts and it’s against our collective agreement to lay us off and stop paying us,” she tells RankandFile.ca. “This government has ripped up our contract; they’re taking away our labour rights.”
The cuts to bus drivers will be 51% of transportation funding. Despite the school closures, bus drivers have continued to work, delivering books and food to students who relied on nutritional programming offered by school boards. Drivers have also been delivering paper packages to Indigenous and rural students that don’t have access to digital learning tools.
Kenney passes workers off to the Feds
Despite the Minister LaGrange promising two weeks prior to the layoff announcement that there would be no cuts to education, the move has forced school divisions to look at the ways these mass layoffs will impact their finances. Kenney had claimed that “school boards indicated to the minister of education that they intended to lay those individuals off as they were not working”, despite many boards stating that they did not call for layoffs. In Edmonton, the public school district is looking into the legality of breaking contracts with support staff two months before the semester is over.
The Wild Rose, Medicine Hat and Prairie Rose School Divisions have all decided to delay or not to lay off educational assistants and support staff, and are looking for ‘cost savings’ in order to retain staff until the end of the school year. While this is admirable, the move is still likely to result in layoffs for supply teachers and bus drivers. The budget passed in October already cut 2% from education funding, and removed the class size initiative grant; it is likely that the UCP will use these divisions as an opening to justify future workforce cuts and reduced education budgets.
The Alberta government says the thousands of staff impacted by these layoffs can apply for Employment Insurance and Canada Emergency Response Benefit programs, passing responsibility for these workers off to the federal government.
The gaps in CERB have been well documented: gig workers, undocumented workers, students, and countless workers in other sectors who have had their hours reduced, but have not been laid off, will not be able to access the federal funding. Offloading workers to federal supports and not provincial supports will be disastrous for the hundreds of thousands of people that won’t qualify for EI or CERB.
Meanwhile, whispers of a $15 billion dollar corporate bailout for the oil and gas industry circulate.
Kenney puts corporate pipelines over people
Amidst these layoffs that have affected 1% of Alberta’s workforce, the government has invested $7.5 billion into the U.S. Keystone XL pipeline. Kenney has given $1.5 billion through a provincial government equity investment in TC Energy Corporation. Next year, they will provide an additional $6 billion loan guarantee. Kenney has claimed that the pipeline will create 6,800 jobs after putting tens of thousands of education workers out of a paycheck while the price of oil currently sits at less than $5 a barrel.
All this comes in the same week that Jason Nixon, Minister of the Environment suspended rules for environmental reporting for the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA), the Water Act and the Public Lands Act. This news follows the Trump administration in waiving enforcement of the Environmental Protection Agency. In a recent op-ed to Canadians “from oil and gas workers” 14 CEOs of oil corporations penned a letter calling on the Prime Minister to “save our industry”.
This government made their intentions for education clear when they chose to take control of teacher’s pension plans and send them to be managed by The Alberta Investment Management Corp. (AIMCo.), which has directed much of its portfolio to propping up the oil and gas industry, with many teachers and labour leaders fearing that the $50 billion in retirement funds are being looked at as a potential source for corporate welfare to invest in the oilpatch.
What kind of society do we want?
Conservative governments are taking advantage of this pandemic to force through pipelines, privatization and austerity. Continuing to follow the history of former premier Ralph Klein, Jason Kenney has forced workers into taking zeros on their contracts in order to protect their jobs, only to fire them. If workers are going to be “temporarily” laid off, it follows suit that there should be a moratorium, not a deferral, on rent payments, internet, utilities, mortgages, childcare costs, transportation, and medical services.
In British Columbia, EA’s and substitutes are being sent to provide childcare to frontline workers, bus drivers have the ability to be redeployed to deliver essential medical equipment, food, and other supplies to frontline workers, library workers can pack food hampers, and custodians can be redeployed to clean health care facilities. What we need at this moment is a relief package to support workers, not bailouts for billionaires, corporations and sunset industries.
“We need to define what kind of society we want to be. The most important thing is to make it clear that these cuts are not acceptable; this is not the time to be taking away support for students, but improving support.” says Randi W. “Children are not immune to this, their lives are being impacted. We don’t approve of what the government is doing and they’re not going to be re-elected.”