Budget is a "triple whammy" for working people in Alberta, says AFL

EDMONTON - The budget unveiled by the Klein government late this afternoon is a "triple whammy" for working people in Alberta, says the president of Alberta's largest union organization.

As a result of the new budget, Albertans will be paying higher taxes and facing declining quality of services in areas like health care and education, says Les Steel, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"Before the last provincial election, the premier wooed working peoples' votes by offering a big tax cut. A year later he's broken that promise by substantially increasing health premiums - which are a tax hike in all but name. That's the first whammy."

Steel says the second "whammy" has to do with the way the government is handling education funding.

"This budget represents a lost opportunity to resolve the dispute with the teachers," says Steel. "They could have dealt with some of the problems that lie at the heart of the dispute - like the issue of over-crowding. But by refusing to put more money into the classroom they've basically guaranteed more labour unrest."

The third assault on the interests of working people cited by Steel has to do with health care. In particular, Steel says the government has failed to make funding adjustments that reflect Alberta's growing population.

"On the surface, a seven percent increase in funding sounds great. But in reality it doesn't keep up with the combined pressures of inflation and population growth. In effect this so-called increase is actually a cut for our health care system. So much for the government's supposed commitment to Medicare."

Steel concluded by pointing out that many of the cuts announced today are a direct result of the government's "irresponsible flat tax and cuts to corporate taxes.

"We're a wealthy province but our government has basically impoverished our public sector by slashing taxes for big business and the wealthy. Today we see that it's ordinary working people who are going to have to pay for these irresponsible cuts."


For more information call:

Les Steel, President @ 780-499-4135 (cell)

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Tories Stab Teachers in the Back, Says AFL

The Education Services Settlement Act, introduced today in the Legislature, is an affront to the principles of fair collective bargaining, says the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). The Premier has reneged on his promise to teachers and is ensuring many more years of labour unrest in our school system.

"Premier Klein stabbed teachers in the back today," says AFL President Les Steel. "He promised them a fair process and instead rammed an unfair settlement down their throats."

"This is not arbitration. This is dictation," says Steel, pointing out that the bill exempts teachers from the Arbitration Act, which sets the rules for arbitrations. "This Act is not abiding by any of the basic rules of arbitration and collective bargaining. It is a bully act."

"Klein is a copycat. He is using the same bully tactics as Gordon Campbell in B.C. by striking out legally binding clauses in existing contracts," Steel highlights. "Not only is this immoral, it is most likely unconstitutional."

Steel states there are a number of horrible aspects to this bill. First, the restrictions place on the arbitrator are so tight that none of the teachers' issues can get heard. "He has shackled the arbitrator to force them to toe the government line."

Second, the bill strips away any clause in any active collective agreement that addresses class sizes, instructional time or classroom conditions. "These are legally binding contracts being ripped up by a rabid, ideological government."

Steel predicts more unrest and anger from teachers. "With this kind of provocation, I suspect to see years of increasing anger and action from teachers."

"Look out Ralph Klein; you may have released a tiger." Steel concludes.

For more information call:

Les Steel, President @ 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-499-4135 (cell)

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Court ruling highlights important role strikes can play in resolving disputes

EDMONTON - The decision by the Alberta Court of Appeal to over-turn a government back-to-work order involving thousands of striking teachers is a victory for teachers on several levels, says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization.

"On the most obvious level this is a victory for teachers because it allows them to resume their strike, if they so choose," says Les Steel, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"On another level, it exposes the weakness in the government's arguments that teachers shouldn't be allowed to strike. The Premier has been threatening to introduce legislation defining teachers as an essential service. But if the court says a three-week strike does not constitute an emergency, how can the government justify revoking the teachers' right-to-strike?"

Steel says Chief Justice Allan Wachowich's decision is important because it recognizes that all strikes - by their very nature - cause some degree of hardship. Wachowich went on to say that the hardship caused by strikes is an acceptable price to be paid for living a democratic society.

"The alternative to strikes is imposing a system that turns workers into criminals if they choose to stand up for themselves," says Steel. "That's why these kinds of restrictions have been rejected by most western democracies. And it's why the United Nations has defined the right-to-strike as a basic democratic right along with things like freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech."

On a practical level, strikes can be messy and disruptive - but they are often the only way to resolve contentious disputes in the workplace, adds Steel.

"In most cases, the playing field is tilted sharply in favour of the employer when it comes to contract negotiations," he says. "Without the threat of strikes, employers have no real incentive to consider the concerns of their workers. So strikes clearly have a place. They're a tool of last resort - but if the right-to-strike is taken away, it turns negotiations into a farce where employers never have to compromise."

In the current situation with education in Alberta, Steel says the right-to-strike has served a valuable public service.

"Teachers in this province have been trying to get the government's attention for years with public relations campaigns and other less confrontational lobbying strategies - all to no avail," says Steel. "It got to the point where they felt a strike was the only way to force the government to acknowledge their concerns about things like classroom size and chronic under-funding. If teachers didn't have the right to strike,  the government would just continue on with its head in the sand."

Given the important role that strikes and the threat of strikes can play in resolving disputes and bringing simmering issues out into the open where they can be dealt with, Steel says that the government should stop making threats about essential service legislation.

"The dispute with the teachers is not going to be resolved by the government antagonizing teachers," says Steel. "What's really needed is for the government to stop hiding behind the school boards and acknowledge that they - as the central funding authority - need to get to the table and compromise. The government needs to accept responsibility for providing adequate funding for schools in this province."


For more information call:

Les Steel, President @  780-483-3021 (wk) 780-499-4135 (cell)

-or-

Gil McGowan, Communications Director @  780-483-3021 (wk)  780-910-1137 (cell)

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2002 IWD Events

Kerry Barrett, Secretary Treasurer, AFL

Numerous events were held across the province to celebrate International Women's Day.

In Edmonton on Friday March 8 there was a shared supper at the Queen Alexandra Hall. Following the dinner there were a few speakers including Karen Beaton from the ATA, representatives of Women in Black, G8 women activists, health care workers and an open mike for speakers, poetry, and music.

To celebrate International Women's Day in Calgary a potluck dinner and celebration were held on Friday, March 8 at the Carpenters Hall. The evening began with a potluck dinner, which was followed by a short program including a guest speaker, the singing of "Bread and Roses" and "Equal Rights". About 60 people in attendance.

On Saturday, March 9 the traditional Celebratory March took place from City Hall to the Vision of Hope Monument in Edmonton. Following the march there was a gathering at City Hall that included guest speakers, entertainment and displays. The theme was "Women Moving Mountains". About 100 people attended the event.

The program included the song "Bread and Roses performed by Marie-Josee Ouimet, a poetry reading by Shirley Konrad and greetings from the City of Edmonton by Karen Leibovici. A dance performance by Amasaro, a play by "Check-wazai" Aboriginal U of A drama students, a presentation of a donation to the Cathy Sewell Scholarship for Indigenous Arts and the presentations of the Edmonton International Women's Day Youth Achievement Awards were also part of the program.

The keynote speakers included Liv Lunde who is a 19 year old spokesperson for non-violence and tolerance. She helps provide a forum for discussion of youth justice through a weekly radio show on CJSR. Liv also writes about alternatives to violence for the Red Tear. The YWCA Women of Distinction Award in the youth category was awarded to her in 2000.

Another keynote speaker was Linda Bull who is a member of the Cree, Saddle Lake and the Goodfish Lake First Nation. She has a Masters degree of Education and is currently completing her doctoral work in Peace Education. She is the first recipient of the Ghandi Millenium Graduate Fellowship and has traveled to 5 continents with her message of empowerment, solidarity and peace.

The Edmonton International Women's Day Youth Achievement Awards were presented to Christine Jairamsingh and Erin Fitzgerald who have launched a constitutional challenge to have the voting age lowered to 16. Samantha King was also the recipient of an award. She is a 16 year old Edmonton singer who performs at a variety of charity events to help raise money and awareness for such charities as the Youth Emergency Shelter and the Michael Cuccione Foundation (childhood cancer).

J'Lyn Nye from Global TV hosted the event and reminded everyone of the history surrounding IWD. In August 1910, at a meeting in Copenhagen, the Women's Socialist International decided to commemorate the strike on March 8, 1857 of hundreds of women working in garment and textile factories in New York City by observing an annual International Women's Day.

The Centre for Immigrant Women from Latin America also hosted an event which included workshops followed by a plenary session, cultural entertainment and music from Notre Dame Des Bananes.

These events are a great way to celebrate International Women's Day and raise awareness of the accomplishments women have made and commit to the struggles we continue to face.

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New Legislature session will feature renewed attacks on basic workers rights

EDMONTON -  Despite government reassurances and claims to the contrary, the new session of the Legislature is shaping up as an historic showdown on issues such as public health care and basic workers rights, says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization.

"Everyone is talking about the Klein government's plans to implement the recommendations of the Mazankowski report," says Les Steel, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"On that issue, we side with all those Albertans who see the Mazankowski plan as a fundamental attack on Medicare. But the government seems to have another, less publicized, agenda in this session - an agenda to undermine the rights of working people and the unions that represent them."

The most obvious example of this agenda is all the talk in government circles about stripping teachers of the right to strike or even using legislation to decertify or weaken the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA). But, as Steel points out, these are by no means the only major labour issues that will be discussed in this session.

"It wasn't mentioned in the Throne speech, but we know that the government is going to bring in new legislation to take the right to strike away from paramedics," he says. "They're also going to announce the creation of a committee to investigate changes to the Labour Code, with a view to making it harder for unions to organize - especially in the construction trades."

Taken together with the expected attacks on the ATA, Steel says the government's plans for the coming legislative session add up to the most "anti-worker and anti-union agenda that we've seen in Alberta in years - and that's saying something."

Steel says he is deeply saddened that - yet again - the government seems to be treating working people as enemies instead of partners in creating a better Alberta.

"It's yet another indication that this government simply doesn't get it when it comes to labour relations," concludes Steel. "They don't recognize that working people have a right to bargain collectively. And they refuse to admit that workers usually have very legitimate concerns. Instead, this government's first impulse is to reach for the big stick. In a supposedly open and democratic society, this is no way to solve problems and it is no way to treat citizens."

For more information call:

Les Steel, President         @        780-483-3021 (wk) 780-499-4135 (cell)

-or-

Gil McGowan, Communications Director  @  780-483-3021 (wk)  780-910-1137 (cell)

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Back-to-work order will not solve the problems plaguing our schools

EDMONTON - The government can use its legal clout to force teachers back to work, but they can't make teachers and parents forget their concerns about over-crowded classrooms and chronic under-funding, says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization.

"Using a back-to-work order may end the strike, but it will do nothing to address the problems that caused the dispute in the first place," says Les Steel, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"As long as these problems remain unaddressed, teachers and parents will continue to be angry and dissatisfied - and the quality of education in our province will continue to suffer."

Steel says Premier Ralph Klein and Education minister Lyle Oberg are deluding themselves if they think that everything will return to business as usual once teachers are back on the classroom.

"The problem with these kinds of heavy-handed tactics is that they almost always backfire," says Steel. "Sure, you can force people back to work. But the government is running the risk of poisoning labour relations in Alberta schools for years to come."
Steel says that if the teachers don't feel they're being fairly treated, more and more of them are simply going to quit and it will become more difficult to attract new people to the profession.

"So, by playing tough-guy today, the government may win a short-term victory. But there will be a big price to pay in the long-run."

Steel also expressed skepticism about government plans to bring in a mediator if teachers and school boards are not able to reach an agreement by March 16.

"Arbitration only works if the arbitrator is completely independent and not a puppet of the government. We don't have confidence that this will be the case when it comes to the teachers' dispute," says Steel.

Steel says that the real problem - the problem that has been at the heart of the things since negotiations began - is that the government is refusing to put more money on the table.

"By refusing to consider new funding, the government is not giving the either school boards or the arbitrator any room to move," says Steel. "As a result, the arbitration process will be a sham - it's really just a front for an imposed settlement."

Steel says that what's really needed to end the dispute with the teachers is for the government to stop hiding behind the school boards and acknowledge that more provincial money is needed to properly fund schools throughout the province.

"I have no doubt that a settlement can be reached with the teachers without having to resort to heavy-handed legal action," says Steel. "But it's not going to happen until the provincial government acknowledges its responsibilities and gives the school boards the resources they need to reduce class sizes and pay teachers a fair wage."


For more information call:

Les Steel, President    @ 483-3021 (wk) 499-4135 (cell)

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AFL welcomes nurses into the House of Labour

EDMONTON - The Alberta labour movement became stronger and more cohesive yesterday, thanks to a decision by the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) to join the Alberta Federation of Labour.

The decision to affiliate to the Federation was made directly and democratically by UNA's 18,500 members, who cast ballots at hospitals, clinics and other health facilities across the province.

Delegates to the nurses' annual convention set the wheels in motion for affiliation last November when they overwhelming supported a resolution to join the AFL and Alberta's seven district labour councils.

But under UNA's constitution, the motion had to be approved by both a majority of the unions' members and a majority of its 163 locals.

The final vote was held throughout the day yesterday - and a clear majority of nurses and UNA locals gave the green light to affiliation.

"Obviously we're extremely pleased by the decision," said AFL Secretary Treasurer, Kerry Barrett after the results of the vote were announced last night at UNA headquarters in Edmonton.

Barrett, who is standing in for AFL President while he is out of province dealing with a family emergency, described the affiliation decision as a "win-win" situation for the nurses and the AFL.

"By joining the Federation, UNA and its members will benefit from the strength and solidarity that comes from being a part of the House of Labour," said Barrett. "And the AFL will benefit from an infusion of new people, new ideas and new energy."

Barrett added that UNA has a reputation for being one of the "most successful and principled unions in the country - so we welcome them into the fold with open arms. We're looking forward to working more closely with them."

With UNA on board, the AFL now represents more than 100,000 unionized working people across the province. UNA will become the Federations' largest single affiliate, joining about 30 other unions from both the public and private sectors.


For more information call:

Kerry Barrett, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 720-8945 (cell)

Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ 483-3021 (wk)

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Unions will have no choice but to bargain for health benefits if Maz report is implemented, says AFL

EDMONTON - If the Alberta government proceeds with changes to Medicare proposed today by the Mazankowski commission, businesses in the province will be saddled with new costs and the so-called "Alberta Advantage" will be seriously eroded, says Les Steel, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"The Premier and Mr. Mazankowski talk about the need to control spending," says Steel. "But this report isn't really about reducing costs - it's about transferring costs to individuals and businesses."

Steel points out that the current Medicare system acts as a huge competitive advantage for companies doing business in Alberta and other Canadian provinces. As a result of Canada's universal health care system, businesses here don't need to pay for private health insurance for their employees. This gives Canadian companies an advantage over their American competitors who see up to a third of their payroll budgets eaten up by insurance costs.

"The labour movement's first choice would be to maintain a fully-funded and comprehensive public health system that's there for all Canadians when they need it," says Steel.

"But - make no mistake. If the government de-lists health services, then unions will have no choice but to bargain for supplementary private insurance. This will almost certainly drive up costs for businesses in Alberta - and reduce our competitiveness. Is that the kind of legacy that Ralph Klein really wants to leave?"

In addition to his concerns about de-listing, Steel says he's also troubled by Mazankowski's emphasis on contracting more and more health services to the private sector.

"The evidence from here in Canada and around the world is clear," said Steel. "Whether it's American-style private health care or British-style contracting out, privatization doesn't work. It always leads to higher costs and reduced quality of care. Given the dismal record of private health care, I can't understand why the Alberta government insists on going down this road. They're allowing their ideological preferences to blind them to the weaknesses of private health care."

Steel concluded by criticizing the Council's recommendations involving things like user fees, medical savings accounts and treating health care costs as a taxable benefit.

"In all of these cases, the government is basically saying that Albertans should pay more for health care - on top of what they already pay in taxes and health care premiums. Once again, the people who will be hardest hit by these schemes will be the ones who can least afford it - the poor and the sick."


For further information, contact:

Les Steel, AFL President     @ (780) 483-3021 (wk) / (780) 499-4135 (cell)

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Alberta must revise labour law to grant agricultural workers the right to join unions

EDMONTON - In light of yesterday's ground-breaking Supreme Court ruling on the rights of farm workers, the Alberta government should move quickly to revise its labour laws to give agricultural workers the right to join unions, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court declared yesterday that a section of the Ontario Labour Relations Act which prohibits agricultural workers from joining unions is unconstitutional because it violates the workers' right to freedom of association guaranteed under section two of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

AFL President Les Steel says that the Alberta Labour Code has a similar section restricting the rights of agricultural workers. Agricultural workers in Alberta are also excluded from the Employment Standards Code - meaning they have no legal protection when it comes to things like minimum wage, overtime, hours of work or vacations.

"These restrictions are relics of the past and deserve to be swept away," says Steel. "There's no reason why agricultural workers should not have the same rights as people working in other sectors of the economy."

The exclusions have been on the books for decades - dating back to the time when most farms were small, family-run operations. But Steel says agriculture has evolved into a corporate-style business - with factory farms and large, intensive livestock operations popping up all around the province.

"You can't say that people working in these kinds of large-scale agri-businesses are any different than people working in factories or warehouses," says Steel. "Denying these people the right to organize - and the right to have other protections in the workplace - is wrong, plain and simple."

Steel says he will raise the issue of rights for agricultural workers when he meets with Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford early in the New Year.

"This is not just an academic issue," says Steel. "Every year we get calls from agricultural workers complaining about their conditions of work and asking to join a union. In the past, we've had to explain that the laws were stacked against them. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, we can offer them some hope."

According to Statistics Canada, about 80,000 people are employed in Alberta's agricultural sector.

For further information, contact:

Les Steel, AFL President  @ (780) 483-3021 (wk) / (780) 499-4135 (cell)

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Alberta Federation of Labour Year End Statement, December 2001

EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour is predicting a year of increased labour unrest as low unemployment and healthy economic growth create conditions that will produce substantial wage increase demands.

"Both public and private employers are pointing to the overall economic recession in Canada as the reason why workers in Alberta will, once again, be asked to accept little or no wage and benefit increases in the upcoming year," said Alberta Federation of Labour President Les Steel.

But this argument will make little sense to Albertans, who can see that Alberta is in good financial shape, according to Steel. "Let's face it, when you live in the province with the lowest unemployment rate (4.5%) and the strongest economic growth rate in Canada, you expect to get a fair share of that prosperity as a worker," he said.

The Alberta government itself predicts growth of better than 3% per year over the next three years - and that estimate is well in line with economic forecasts by the TD Bank Financial Group (2.8% in 2002; 3.3% in 2003; 3.5% in 2004) and the Bank of Montreal (3.5% in 2002; 4.5% in 2003).

Another spur to increased wage demands by Albertans is that fact that the cost of living has increased by 22.4 % since 1992. Along with Manitoba, this represents the highest inflation rate in Canada during that period.

"With an increased cost-of-living, workers need to make at least equivalent wage gains just to keep even," said Steel.

Teachers bargaining will establish labour relations climate

The current bargaining between the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) and the province (through the School Boards) will, according to Steel, set the tone for bargaining over the next year.

"The teachers are more than justified in their bargaining position," said Steel. "They deserve a wage increase at least as large as that provided to provincial employees (roughly 15 - 18%), but the government has tried to limit them to 6% over two years - less than the likely inflation rate."

Steel suspects that the government is deliberately trying to provoke a confrontation with the ATA. "If the government is forcing a province-wide teachers' strike with the idea that they will be able to force teachers back to work with an inferior settlement, or to break up the ATA, they had better rethink their strategies," said Steel. "The labour movement will mobilize its members and their families behind the teachers," said Steel.

"We believe that the teachers are the ones who have the best interests of public education and of our children at heart, and we strongly believe that teachers' right to free collective bargaining is worth protecting."

"It will be up to the government to decide if they want to create a more militant, confrontational labour relations climate by forcing a confrontation with teachers," added Steel, "because the teachers' negotiations will set the tone for bargaining in Alberta in 2002."

Union membership up in Alberta despite unfriendly labour laws

Despite a rapidly growing workforce and labour laws which fail to protect workers rights to organize and bargain collectively, more and more Alberta workers are joining unions.

"The unionization rate in Alberta increased from 21.1% in 2000 to 22.5% in 2002," observed Steel. This shows that not only are unions still relevant in Alberta - they are desired by more and more workers."

This is despite labour laws which allow employers to evade legitimate efforts by Albertans to organize unions and to bargain collectively.

"The Minister responsible for labour is well aware of our criticisms of Alberta labour laws," said Steel. "We will be making the case for more enlightened laws to the Minister during the review of labour laws scheduled for 2002."

Nurses vote to join growing Alberta Federation of Labour

Another indication of the increasing importance of the labour movement in Alberta is the growth of the AFL - the central voice of labour in the province. Despite the withdrawal of the largest union in the province, AUPE, membership in the AFL is likely to be higher than it was last year.

"If the United Nurses of Alberta ratify their convention's decision to bring their 20,000 members in to the Federation, the AFL will be larger than ever," said Steel.

"That's because more and more unions are seeing the essential need for mobilizing mutual support and for a united voice to articulate labour's position on key current issues."

More struggles in the health care field expected

One of the key issues labour expects to be organizing around in 2002 will be the next attempts by the Klein government to introduce further privatization of health care following release of the Mazankowski Commission report.

"We will oppose the expected government efforts to transfer health care costs to individual Albertans," said Steel.

"Make no mistake, unions will take any increased health care costs to their bargaining tables - so our members will not suffer. But it is the unorganized workers who will bear the brunt of this downloading of costs onto private citizens - and we will act to defend their interests, too."

For further information, contact:

Les Steel, AFL President  @ (780) 483-3021 (wk) / (780) 499-4135 (cell)

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