As COVID cases mount, labour leads fight for Albertans’ lives

Workers protest cuts by provincial government and LTC profiteer Extendicare 

By PV staff 

COVID-19 cases in Alberta famously surged during the federal election, prompting right-wing premier Jason Kenney to publicly apologize for his government’s assessment and handling of the pandemic.

Yet, although Kenney has pledged to take emergency measures to “maximize healthcare capacity” and “prevent an ongoing crisis” – while facing open calls for his resignation, including from within his caucus – he appears to have doubled down on his policies of funding cuts and privatization. This has brought Alberta’s labour movement into the forefront of the struggle to save services – and lives.

As soon as the Alberta Health Service (AHS) announced on September 15 that the surge in COVID cases was taxing the province’s hospital capacity and was likely to run out of beds and staff within 10 days, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) called on the government to immediately restore funding it had cut from the healthcare system and to immediately scrap plans for further cuts.

AUPE Vice-President Bonnie Gostola warned, “Beds, ventilators, staff, medications … these are the things our hospitals are running out of right now – literally the most basic, life-saving components. Now, AHS is on the verge of triaging. That shouldn’t be happening in our hospitals. [Kenney] didn’t take COVID-19 seriously, and he made a joke out of our healthcare system in the last two and half years. Now people are dying preventable deaths.”

The seeds for Alberta’s present healthcare crisis were sown well before the pandemic. In its very first provincial budget in 2019, Kenney’s United Conservatives introduced a range of effective funding cuts (when inflation and population are factored in) which included a 17 percent reduction in health funding over four years. On top of this, the 2019 budget slashed the provincial corporate income tax by 33 percent, resulting in $1.2 billion in lost revenue each year and cementing the funding cuts over the long term.

The 2020 provincial budget continued this neoliberal austerity approach with the addition of a further $129 million cut from health funding, contracting out of surgeries and sweeping unilateral cuts to doctors’ pay schedules. Speaking to the latter measure at the time, Alberta Communist Party leader Naomi Rankin warned that “the pay cuts for doctors takes Alberta to the point that significant numbers of physicians may leave the province.” Those concerns were borne out – journalist Kim Siever has tracked the number of doctors in Alberta and concludes that there was a net loss of 300 in province between July 2020 and March 2021.

The AUPE says that the public health emergency requires “an immediate overhaul of these attacks on the medical system.” In addition to emergency healthcare funding, it is demanding “a full-stop to the UCP’s plans to outsource 11,000 AHS jobs, which will put even more pressure on rural Alberta’s collapsing healthcare system.”

At the same time that the government is starving Alberta’s healthcare system, private health corporations in one of the sectors that is most vulnerable to COVID are moving to implement cuts of their own.

Extendicare is one of the largest private home care providers in Canada. The corporation’s profits have soared during the pandemic, with its 2020 net earnings increasing by 89 percent over 2019 and on track for a similar spike in 2021. Despite this profiteering, between January and September 2020 it received over $80 million in government subsidies (CEWS). During the same period, it paid out nearly $30 million in dividends to its shareholders.

Currently, Extendicare is in negotiations with AUPE at its locations in Alberta. Unsatisfied with nearly doubling its profit this year and last, or with public handouts totalling 9 percent of its total payroll, the corporation is insisting that workers accept a wide range of rollbacks. These include a 4 percent wage cut, sick time paid at 85 percent of hourly wage, a 33 percent chop to extended health benefits and reduced pension (RSP) contributions.

The union calls Extendicare’s position a “slap in the face” to workers who have made sacrifices to care for Albertans throughout this pandemic, by a rich and powerful corporation. AUPE Vice-President Bobby-Joe Borodey says this is an example of why profit needs to be taken out of healthcare. “The Kenney government’s approach to health care is already a disaster. Kenney thinks you can put a price on health care and as a result wants to roll back wages and fire over 11,000 workers. Private providers like Extendicare are even worse because not only do they put a price on health care, but they also hoard that money for profit.”

AUPE has been organizing protests at Extendicare locations across Alberta, with the latest being held on October 6 at its Fairmont Park facility in Lethbridge.

“It’s honestly insulting that Extendicare is trying to attack working conditions at their care homes,” said union Vice-President Karen Weiers. “These workers have been keeping residents safe through the pandemic, at great risk to themselves and their families. How can some corporate executive justify cutting their benefits? Extendicare should be offering improvements in working conditions, to retain current staff and attract more workers—not slashing benefits, which will only drive workers away and worsen the labour shortage that plagues Alberta’s healthcare system.”

The healthcare fight comes at a moment of sharpening attacks on Alberta unions in general, and an increasingly militant tone to labour’s response. In July 2020, the Kenney government introduced a sweeping attack on union rights through Bill 32, the Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act. This omnibus legislation threatens unions’ bargaining power and severely limits their ability to engage in political activities in their fight for better working conditions. Lana Smidt, Prairie Region National Director for Canadian Union of Postal Workers, described Bill 32 as “inspired by an American approach to labour and employment relations. A shift to a low-road economic strategy that will promote low wages, poor working conditions, weak environmental standards and impatience with democratic dissent.”

In the face of such legislative attacks, however, several labour leaders are saying they will not be intimidated. CUPE Alberta president Rory Gill told CBC that the law infringes on members’ freedoms of expression and association and that it won’t stop trade unionists from political action like setting up secondary pickets in solidarity with other unions. Unifor president Jerry Dias was more blunt: “Jason Kenney will not have an impact on the activities of Unifor. Zero. As a matter of fact, the more foolish legislation he passes, the more eager I am to defy it.”

Workers need that kind of defiance and militance from union leaders if they are going to fight off austerity and win progressive reforms. For Alberta, the struggle is literally about life or death.

As AUPE’s Gostala says, “Excuses are no longer acceptable! Albertans need solutions because the pain is far from over. The death toll grows. The Premier is coming in too little, too late today, but there’s still time to implement solutions, and we’re going to ensure he actually does right by frontline workers and all Albertans.”

[Photo: AUPE Twitter]

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