Alberta labour pushes back against Kenney cuts

By Jim Felix

When Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) ended Alberta’s brief period of NDP government last year, the province’s labour movement knew that tougher times were on the way. Unlike the era of Ralph Klein’s spending cuts in the 1990s, when trade unions in Alberta had a larger membership but were poorly prepared for a fight, this time the labour movement launched its campaign of resistance right away.

The vicious anti-working class offensive by the Kenny UCP was not long in coming, including rollbacks to remove most of the gains achieved under Rachel Notley’s NDP. Then the latest Alberta budget on February 27 took the attack to a higher level, provoking a big response. In Edmonton, 13,000 people demonstrated against the government on the day of the budget speech; this was followed two days later by demonstrations around the province including in Medicine Hat, Red Deer and other cities with little recent history of labour activism.

The 2020-21 budget will axe an estimated 1,436 public-sector jobs and cut operating funding for crucial public services by $813-million. As President Guy Smith of the 18,000-member Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) said, “I’ve never seen a more two-faced government in power. Premier Kenney says he’s for Albertans, but the reality is he’s only for big business. He’s given a $4.7-billion tax break to some of the same corporations that are laying off workers and short-changing rural communities by not paying their property taxes, and asking everyday people to pick up the tab.”

Among much more, the budget limits health spending to a tiny 0.3 per cent, far short of the 2.9 per cent required to keep up with inflation and population growth.

The UCP attack on education is one of the government’s most unpopular moves. The budget requires school boards to dip into their reserves, and it imposes a six per cent cut to post-secondary funding.

By next fall, up to 30,000 students will have entered Alberta schools with no additional funds to support them, according to Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) President Jason Schilling. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange claims that school boards will receive an increase in funding for next school year, but as Schilling points out, despite all available evidence, LaGrange has never admitted that schools received a $136 million cut for the 2019-20 school year.

Lengthy lists of UCP attacks are being circulated online. Here’s a small sample: removing the post-secondary tuition cap, and increasing the student loan interest rate; plundering teachers’ pensions funds; paying $30 million a year for the government’s media “war room”; increasing dental rates; removing surgical procedures deemed “unnecessary” including services women rely on; ending Human Rights and Multicultural Grants; cutting funding for Special Olympics and to Stars air ambulance; gutting programs for kids in care; deindexing Alberta Works and AISH; eliminating the Rental Assistance Program.

Naomi Rankin, Alberta Communist Party leader, noted that some of the UCP moves that particularly disgust people include sweeping unilateral cuts to doctors’ pay schedules and delaying the issue of Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) cheques. “The pay cuts for doctors takes Alberta to the point that significant numbers of physicians may leave the province,” said Rankin. “As for AISH cheques, these payments are already miserably low and delaying them means many people will be unable to pay rent and other bills at the beginning of the month. All this is apparently for no other reason than for the UCP to be able to claim that they spent less on AISH than in the preceding fiscal period.”

Rankin and the Communist Party have called for mass solidarity and action to fight Kenney. Prior to the February 25 throne speech, the Party encouraged workers to “push their unions into action,” pointing to recent examples around the world of labour unity and militancy forcing governments to reverse cuts and layoffs.

“Workers in all sectors will have to support each other in the fight to save jobs and restore social programs. Private sector workers will see no benefits from attacks on public sector workers – only shared insecurity and shared decline in living standards. Firing nurses and teachers will not somehow create demand for pipe-fitters or electricians. It is vital that working people in Alberta fight back – in large numbers and together in solidarity!”

The February 27 rally at the legislature was organized by the Edmonton public and Catholic locals of the ATA and began with a march from the Shaw Convention Centre, where the Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention was held earlier in the day. The teachers were joined by nurses, social workers and other public sector workers, as well as post-secondary students and artists, making for a loud and militant demonstration.

Meanwhile, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is launching the next phase of a campaign to oppose Kenney’s agenda of cuts, privatization, deregulation and attacks on wages and workers’ rights.

“The new campaign is built around the phrase that we’re hearing over and over from the thousands of Albertans we represent,” says AFL president Gil McGowan. “They’re looking at what the UCP is doing to doctors, health care workers and teachers; they’re looking at the UCP’s corporate tax giveaways, and their decisions to cut childcare and drug benefits for seniors. They’re looking at all of these things and saying: ‘That’s not what I voted for.’”

The AFL’s new Not What I Voted For” campaign includes the website, an email tool and several video ads.

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