Unions prepare for ‘war’ over jobs

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

Two union meetings were held in Peace River on Dec. 12, bringing together members of multiple unions to learn about and discuss rollbacks, job cuts, and changes to pensions.

Members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees [AUPE], United Nurses of Alberta [UNA], and Health Sciences Association of Alberta [HSAA] attended a “lunch and learn” at the Peace River Community Health Centre, as well as an afternoon meeting at the AUPE office.

“We’re trying to get the membership ready,” says AUPE vice president Kevin Barry, who is one of the union’s six regional vice-presidents and spoke at the meetings.

The provincial government’s budget has spurred the unions to action as wages are set to be rolled back and thousands of jobs are planned to be lost through attrition and cuts, based on Government of Alberta and Alberta Health Services [AHS] letters sent to unions in preparation for upcoming negotiations.

The UCP government’s Bill 9 already delayed contractually agreed on wage negotiations for employees of the Government of Alberta, AHS boards and agencies and post-secondary AUPE members, among others. Legal battles between unions and the government have continued around the bill.

After two years of zero per cent wage increases, the provincial government is seeking a two per cent wage rollback for AUPE members employed in AHS and the Government of Alberta. The union says that based on what happened in the Klein years, even taking wage rollbacks won’t necessarily stop the government from privatizing those jobs later.

“What I think is happening is that there is an attack on the public sector,” Barry says.

AUPE says the Blue Ribbon MacKinnon Report released in September maps out how the government plans to roll back wages and benefits for workers, privatize large parts of the public sector, and reduce the power of unions by using back-to-work legislation and legislation that overrides essential services agreements that would normally prevent the hiring of replacement workers during a strike.

AUPE also argues that the provincial budget is actually a 17 per cent cut over four years, because of a 2.8 funding cut plus another 14.2 per cent predicted population growth with no new money to fund services for that larger population.

AUPE says the plan to shrink the public sector by 7.7 per cent over four years will mean the loss of more than 16,000 full time jobs. Those include 2,500 full time employees [FTE] in the government which could be the equivalent of up to 5,900 people who aren’t working full-time, 500 FTE layoffs or 750 people in UNA, 750 FTE layoffs or 1,000 people in HSAA, and many more.

“They’re already working short,” Barry says. “They’re reporting constantly about working short and not having enough people around because they’re not hiring the empty positions, and now they’re going to go away.”

Barry says the current government did not campaign on cuts.

“They said they were going to not hit front lines, they were not going to hurt healthcare, [Premier] Kenney signed the document publicly about not hurting healthcare and now we’re seeing the opposite,” Barry says.

Although many people on social media have blamed high earning management for the loss of front line workers, Barry says the MacKinnon Report actually recommends lifting the wage freeze on managers so they can make more money even as it recommends cuts and rollbacks for workers.

Barry says the loss of front line workers will only hurt, not help, Alberta’s economy.

“Oil and gas is hurting in this province. The downturn in 2014 was a global downturn, and we’re not against oil and gas, we’re not trying to hurt oil and gas. It’s about what’s happening in the public sector,” he says.

In cases where a spouse or partner has lost work in the oilfield, he says, “Some of these families only have a public sector employee holding the family together.”

“You talk about trying to support an economy, and then you start cutting your economy while you’re handing $4.7 billion out to corporations. It makes no economic sense. So now you have 4.7 billion out to corporations and you ask the public sector to pay for it. There’s something wrong with that.”

Barry adds the loss of front line workers will negatively affect rural communities like Peace River.

“Janice MacKinnon, [head of] the MacKinnon report, when she was the finance minister in Saskatchewan, cut all kinds of rural hospitals. Saskatchewan still hasn’t recovered from that. So we think the same thing is going to be coming here,” Barry says.

“Rural communities need to wake up and say what is truly happening here? Why are we seeing all these things happen here? This is not what this government campaigned on, and we are seeing something completely different.”

Barry worries the loss of front line workers will mean more people in Peace River have to travel to the city to get help.

“If they don’t have the facilities or don’t have the people or don’t have the doctors to be able to perform what they need they are going to have to go somewhere else.”

Barry recommends people put pressure on their local municipal leaders to talk to the UCP government about what’s happening in order to prevent damage to small communities.

With 1,252 members of AUPE in Peace River alone, Barry says politicians should pay attention as those union members are all voters.

“There is definitely talk of a general strike. Will that happen? We’re trying to build the capacity within our membership to be able to take whatever direct action they need, and if other labour groups decide that that’s what they need to do, we will certainly be in solidarity with them,” Barry says.

If a strike does happen sometime in the new year, Barry says it will be difficult to replace the front line workers in the Peace even if new legislation legally allows AHS to do that.

“If there is any type of job action, because we’re trying to get the membership ready to take whatever direct action they need to, AHS is not going to be able to replace them with anybody because they are specialized,” Barry says.

“So those people will not be available to do the jobs that the public sector needs, especially in the healthcare world. It’s going to hurt communities.”

However, Barry says even if labour action is unpopular, the rights, wages, and jobs of nurses, teachers, and other essential workers are worth defending.

“We work the front lines,” Barry says. “So if you call it a war, and there’s a front line to a war, that’s who we are.”

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