Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, October 2003
It's been 70 years since Alberta had a government that could even be loosely described as worker friendly - and I'm not really sure that the United Farmers government really fit that definition.
But since 1934 we've only had two parties in power in this province - the Social Credit from 1934 to 1971 and the Conservatives from 1971 on. Both of these parties have traditionally mistrusted labour and actively discouraged labour unions. They neither understood nor sympathized with working people and their aspirations, and took their direction from the corporate sector.
What this has meant for organized labour is a long difficult struggle for survival and a constant uphill battle to protect our members' rights and privileges.
During the last 32 years of Conservative rule, labour unions, labour centrals and labour leaders have tried a broad variety of approaches to the government. Some have sucked up to the government. Some have tried to join the government. Some have tried to ignore them.
None of those approaches have worked. If you suck up, they may throw you an occasional bone - but they will hold you in contempt. If you try to join them you will be incorporated and forgotten. If you ignore them, they will use the power of government to strip you and your organization of any power or gains you have gathered.
What this has left us as a strategy is to oppose the government. We have learned that the only rights we have are the rights we are willing to exercise - and that only when we are actively defending our rights do we have any voice at all in this province.
In fact, I can safely say that the only gains working people have ever made in this province were through mobilization and struggle or through the threat of struggle.
Now I know that none of this is new to Alberta nurses or to your union. Struggle is the forge that UNA was founded and tempered upon. I have set this in front of you both as a complement on your principles and steadfastness and as a warning.
The warning is simple. In any protracted struggle, there comes a time when leaders and rank-and-file members get tired and depressed - and want to consider accommodation as the price of peace.
It's like the guy standing on the street banging his head against a brick wall over and over again. When asked why he was doing it, he replied: 'I don't know, but it sure feels good when I stop.'
Unfortunately for unions, the second we stop taking on employers and bad governments we become part of the problem instead of the solution. The current attempt by the Regional Health Authorities to force UNA into binding interest arbitration is a case in point. It has become obvious to every intelligent observer in the province that Alberta's labour arbitration process is a loaded gun aimed at the trade union movement and our members.
Because the government is ultimately in control of who is named as the supposedly impartial chair of any arbitration board, the employers' votes will always outnumber labour's votes on any award. I know labour activists who will no longer sit as labour representatives on arbitration boards because they are tired of writing dissents and sick of being a party to unjust awards.
In fact, the number of arbitrations in Alberta used to run between 15 and 20 a year back in the early 80's. By the 90's that had dropped to only 2 or 3 a year - as more and more trade unions rejected the arbitration process.
UNA has led the rejection of interest arbitration in this province - steadfastly refusing to be forced to accept the contract stripping and inferior wages and benefits dictated by the process. But clearly, that hasn't stopped the eagerness of health authorities to make use of this biased process.
The Alberta Federation of Labour has being staying in close contact with your union throughout the current round of negotiations. It has become clear that the government and the regional health authorities have been planning a massive stripping of the rights and entitlements of nurses.
First there is the backhanded attempt through Bill 27 to create dissent both within unions and between unions from the forced combining of region-wide bargaining units. The Federation has worked hard to combat the worst effects of Bill 27. We created an ad hoc action committee of effected unions to build a common strategy and tactics to combat the legislation.
Most recently, we have challenged the impartiality of the Labour Relations Board in the entire process. That challenge has yet to be heard by the Board, but believe me; they are on very shaky ground here and may have all of their decisions to date in this matter overturned.
Secondly, there is the behaviour of the employer at the bargaining table. It seems to me that they are deliberately bargaining to impasse in the wild hope that UNA will ultimately agree to go the binding arbitration route. There is no other explanation for the employer sabotage of the bargaining process through ridiculous demands and unwillingness to make compromises.
If negotiations continue to deteriorate to the point where UNA is forced to take action to protect its members, I want to give you an absolute assurance that the Alberta Federation of Labour and all of its affiliates will be there to support you in your actions. We will mobilize the labour movement and act whenever and in whichever fashion your union wants.
Mobilizing Broad Social and Political Action
Supporting affiliates in struggle is one of the most important things labour centrals like the Alberta Federation of Labour do.
But as I said earlier, we also have to pay attention to the underlying causes of labour's constant state of heartburn in this province. After 70 years of conservative, pro-employer misrule in Alberta, it is little wonder that we have the worst labour laws in Canada; nor should it be any surprise that our most important public services and programs are constantly under attack and under-funded.
An underlying bias against working people has permeated every aspect of our government and, consequently, the very fabric of our society. If we are ever to get out of the constant struggle for survival that faces unions every time they go to the bargaining table in Alberta, we are going to have to get rid of this rotten government!
Unfortunately, this is something that is easier said than done. At election time, the employers' parties get the most funding. They get the support of the corporate media. And, they have developed very sophisticated polling and public relations capacities that allow them to manipulate the electorate through spin doctoring and deliberately mystifying issues.
Clearly, traditional labour approaches to politics have proven ineffective against the slick, well-funded corporate machine.
That's why we have just completely reworked our strategies for mobilizing opposition to the government. Following our last convention, the Federation has adopted an ambitious multi-pronged strategy to create change in Alberta.
In the electoral arena, we are directing our resources to a non-partisan 'issues' campaign. The idea, in a nutshell, is to make an accurate assessment of what working people really want - and to create a political demand for our issues through an aggressive public education campaign.
It will then be up to political parties to take advantage of the space created by the campaign.
The Federation also has initiatives to intervene in the broader, non-electoral arena of public opinion and public debate. We have struck four working groups to build public campaigns which should put real pressure on government from several different directions.
There will be a 'living wage' campaign designed to change the debate over minimum wage to a tangible demand for a living wage. It will involve mobilization of labour, church groups, social justice advocates and others.
We also have a working group mandated to create workers' resource centres across the province to provide broad services for unorganized workers.
We are also mapping out a long term campaign aimed at creating better labour laws in Alberta.
Finally, we are, with the Alberta Teachers' Association, working toward the launching of Public Interest Alberta - a broad coalition designed to protect the public good and to mobilize support for public services and public spaces.
The fundamental premise behind all of these working groups is build social and political alliances through action, and to create pressure for political change from many different directions. It's time we made the government react to our actions instead of us reacting to their actions.
As you can see, the AFL has a very ambitious agenda. We are dedicated to political change in Alberta. It is the only answer to our continued crises at the bargaining table and to the generally shabby treatment of working people in the province.
At the same time, we can and will continue to mobilize our brothers and sisters in support of unions in struggle.
I will leave you with an optimistic note. It took Albertans 37 years to get rid of the Socred government. In just 5 years time, the Tories will have been in power for 37 years. I think time is on our side.