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Alvin Finkel is an expert on the past, so when asked to predict the future he is always somewhat reluctant.
But in watching politics in Alberta closely over the past few weeks, as the province begins to absorb the cuts announced in last month’s budget, he’s been thinking a lot about what the future might hold for those who stand to be hit hardest — including public sector workers, whose wages the province has pledged to roll back by as much as five per cent.
“It is possible that we will end up with a general strike of public servants in the province. Would it be supported by workers in the private sector? Probably not, because the union movement outside the public sector in Alberta is very weak,” said Finkel, a labour historian and president of the Alberta Labour History Institute.
When the Alberta budget was unveiled on Oct. 24, it became clear what the province’s workers and its public institutions were up against. The budget promises more than a billion dollars in cuts, to move towards a balanced budget and to accommodate cutting the corporate tax rate from 12 per cent to eight per cent over the next four years.
To meet those ends, municipalities have had to rehash their budgets with everything from police services to new transit lines on the chopping block. Organizations that work with the less fortunate, such as the Calgary Homeless Foundation, are trying to find ways to meet increasing demand with less money.
Even Alberta Innovates, the province’s technology and innovation bureau - and one of the partnering organizations working on efficiencies in the oil and gas sector - saw drastic cuts resulting in 125 layoffs.
The situation is reminiscent of Ontario under Premier Doug Ford, who has elicited widespread protest — and seen his approval rating plummet — in response to his government’s aggressive cutting of services and programs. Most recently, his education minister has been duking it out with teachers in the weeks since returning to work after the federal election. The government is threatening wage freezes; the teachers began a work-to-rule campaign on Tuesday. Tensions are high, and strikes are possible.
But not even Ford has dared to suggest wage rollbacks, which Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews has said the government will be pursuing in all upcoming arbitration sessions involving the province’s public sector unions. The move will impact tens of thousands of workers — president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Guy Smith estimates it could be as high as 250,000 . AUPE alone represents 95,000 workers.
The election campaigns that put both Ford and Kenney in power were built on promises to make their provinces more hospitable to business. The theory goes that delivering corporate tax cuts will allow businesses to stoke the economies, create jobs and delivering middle-class prosperity. But, in governing, both administrations have so far been marked by a philosophy of cut-to-the-bone austerity.
Finkel says while the depth of the cuts pursued by the United Conservative Party in Alberta would likely already have people in the streets elsewhere — in Alberta, the labour movement has a more complicated past.
“The situation is different here because the major element of our economy for so many years has been the oil industry, and the oil industry is very hard to organize.”
As a consequence, roughly 22 per cent of Alberta workers are represented by a union, according to the Alberta Federation of Labour, compared with the national average of roughly 32 per cent.
No one from the Alberta finance minister's office was made available for an interview, however a statement to National Observer read:
“The Government of Alberta has the utmost respect for all hard-working public sector employees and will move forward on wage negotiations in a manner that respects workers, taxpayers and ensures the sustainability of our public services.
“In addition to spending restraint, we also know that sustainable, high quality public services rely on a strong private sector to grow the economy and bolster government revenue. The Job Creation Tax Cut is a critical part of our strategy to create jobs and boost economic growth and has been endorsed by many prominent economists as an effective tool to do just that.”
Labour unions don't feel so brightly optimistic. "The UCP have broken faith with the thousands and thousands of public-sector Albertans who helped elect them," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, in a press release. "During the election campaign, they promised that front-line public sector workers would not lose their jobs. They also never mentioned public-sector wage cuts."
The budget also includes post-secondary funding cuts that amount to five per cent, on average, per institution. And some schools, like the University of Calgary, are facing more severe slashes to their grants.
Patrick Jones is one of the people hit by those cuts. He was among the first to be laid off from his job at the U of C earlier this month, as it was clear the university would be having to make some drastic, mid-year changes. A contract worker, he learned his fate early. Where the remaining cuts will be made, and the fate of his colleagues are being revealed this week.
Jones shuffles down the aisle at Wal-Mart as he picks out a new pair of no-scuff shoes. It’s not how he wanted to spend his savings, but after having lost his full time job, falling back on a temp serving job is his best option.
“[I’ve been] a casual banquet server for three and a half years. Everyone told me to quit that job,” he says. “But I, unfortunately, needed it to get by, because my salary wasn't that great at the university. It was more so the experience that made it worthwhile. So I was working the second job to get me through my student debt, my rent, bills and stuff.”
Now he's glad he didn't quit.
“Right now it's the holiday season, so I've been able to kind of switch over and at least have some income,” he says. “But come January, I’ll have zero income.”
Jones was working as an engagement assistant in the university’s office of sustainability, a job he’d been fortunate enough to snag just after graduating from the same school almost two years ago. He says he’s worked labour-intensive jobs, service jobs, to fund his education, and he hates the idea of having to go backwards.
“I don't want to go back to that. That's why I went to school — to get a job that was in my field and that I enjoy doing, not just something that will pay the bills. But I'll have to do what I have to do. You know, I'm serving now. So, eventually I’m going to have to make that compromise,” he said.
Jones has been applying for jobs in the sustainable strategy field but the pickings are slim and most jobs require more experience than he has as a relatively new grad.
“I was actually saving to go do my master’s [degree] next year. I don't think that will happen anymore,” he said. “It puts into question the feasibility of my future in Calgary and this province. I'm not sure if I should stay or go. I can't afford my apartment for much longer.”
Many temporary contract teachers are in similar situations after an announcement last week made by Calgary’s public school board, the Calgary Board of Education, said that in order to make up their budget shortfall, they would be laying off 300 people.
However, now the Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange has called the board’s move to lay off teachers “rash” and is pursuing an independent financial audit of the school board. After the results of the audit are available, LeGrange’s office said, it’s possible that the board will be asked to bring back all laid-off teachers.
Last Thursday the University of Calgary’s support-staff union hosted a rally over the lunch hour at the university, which was supported by several other unions. Several hundred people showed up — a vibrant rally by Alberta standards.
“In isolation, we're not much. But together, in solidarity, with all our groups coming together … we are a large group of Albertans, and together we can support each other through this,” Alberta Teachers Association Local 38 president Bob Cocking said.
“In large numbers we can show the government that we're serious, this is not right.”
Barbara Silva was at the rally representing Save Our Students Alberta, a public education advocacy group. Cuts to post-secondary institutions will likely see tuition rise by 22.5 per cent over the next four years. But despite those hikes, Silva said it might take time for students to understand the repercussions of this budget.
“If you're not angry yet, it's OK. Give it time, because the next round of budget cuts are going to get worse and life is going to become incredibly expensive,” Silva said. “Basic human rights – like the right to an education, the right to health care, the right to a safe workplace – are going to become a scarcity in this province. So if you're not ready to fight today, we'll wait for you because it's going to get worse.”
There’s more reason for labour to be up in arms.
When contentious Bill 22 passed third reading on Nov. 21 it not only eliminated the position of the election commissioner who was investigating UCP violations of election spending, it also commandeered control of the Alberta Teachers' Retirement Fund (ATRF). The pension fund, which was previously independently managed, has $18 billion of accumulated assets. That fund will now be controlled by the Alberta Investment Management Corporation, or AIMCo, the Alberta government’s arm's-length investment agency.
“We’re here to say that he’s not going to get away with it,” said McGowan with the Alberta Federation of Labour.
The AFL, which represents 29 unions in the province, has begun a campaign asking the public to “join the resistance” against “Kenney’s cuts”.
Toews has denied that the consolidation of pensions will be used as a political tool, but rather that it will save money and be more efficient. A statement from Toews' office to the National Observer said:
“In the case of the Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund, [consolidation] will save $41 million in administrative costs. AIMCo operates independently and at arm’s length from the government; boards of the pension funds will retain existing governance functions; and importantly there will be no changes to existing pension benefits.”
However, ATA president Jason Schilling disputes that claim: “The government has never adequately responded to data that shows the [teachers’ retirement fund] outperforms AIMCo, even after costs have been factored in. As a result, this decision could actually cost government and teachers more money through higher pension contributions.”
For readers in Ontario, much of this will sound all too familiar. Cuts in that province have been numerous over the last year and a half and outrage and political impediments have forced the Premier Doug Ford to reconsider some cuts.
So too could this be a tipping point in Alberta, as so much is shared between the two provinces' experiences, according to Keith Brownsey, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University. Brownsey said the cuts being seen in both provinces are emblematic of the shift towards hardline conservative ideology.
“It’s not even conservativism anymore. It’s well beyond that,” he said. "It's further to the right than any conservative party has gone in this country before."
In the realm of completely unscientific, yet notable, measures of public opinion, the premiers’ appearances at sporting events demonstrate how Ontario and Alberta are heading down the same tracks at different speeds. Premier Ford was booed by crowds at the Raptor's championship parade this summer. This weekend, debate raged over whether or not Kenney was booed while being introduced at Sunday's Grey Cup game in Calgary — only seven months after his election.
It takes a lot for a nominally apolitical event like the Grey Cup to become an applause-based referendum, Brownsey said, and it could signal a turning point for this government.
“When the UCP were elected, they were elected on a promise of a return to economic growth,” he said. “And I swear to God, there were a number of people who expected to wake up the morning after the election to announcements of massive new investments in the oil and gas sector or in related industries. And it just hasn't happened. In fact, last week in Calgary, another thousand laid off in the oil and gas sector.
“Austerity simply doesn't work and there will be an enormous backlash if this continues and we don't see the economy pick up, and pick up considerably. We also have all sorts of data worldwide that [demonstrates] austerity doesn't work. Look at the United Kingdom.”
But Albertans might not need to look as far as the UK but, instead, back a few decades to cuts in their own province. Finkel recalls the comparable cuts that happened under former Premier Ralph Klein in the ‘90s. The hospital laundry workers strike in response to those measures led to some of the government’s cuts being rolled back. Finkel says in many ways the cuts under this government are worse than the ones under Klein because this time the government is going a step further and taking control of pensions. This isn’t something he expects teachers will take lying down.
“We have a provincial government that wants to absolutely destroy the labor movement in this province and take away any of the gains that workers have ever made in Alberta,” Finkel said.
“The suggestion that our government is launching an attack on organized labour is erroneous,” said a statement from the office of Finance Minister Toews.