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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Union members encouraged to show active support for teachers in the event of a strike

EDMONTON - Unionized workers from around the province are being encouraged to actively support the Alberta Teachers Association and its members in the likely event of a teachers strike.

In a letter sent to more than 250 local union presidents today, AFL president Les Steel urged the labour movement to throw its weight behind the teachers in their fight for smaller classrooms and better pay.

"The ATA is doing everything in its power to win a fair settlement for its members," wrote Steel. "But the reality is (they) will have a hard time winning this struggle on their own - they will also need strong support from the public and their allies in the labour movement."

Steel says that the teachers deserve support because they are fighting to protect and improve a public education system that is being compromised by chronic under-funding.

"We think it's wrong that our young people are being packed into classrooms like sardines," says Steel. "We think it's wrong that parents and students are being forced to hold fund-raisers to fill the holes left by provincial under-funding. And we think it's wrong that the provincial government is doing so little to attract and retain high quality teachers."

"(That's why) we think the teachers deserve support in their fight - because they are fighting to build a public education system that better serves the needs of students and communities across the province."

In addition to concerns about protecting quality education in Alberta, Steel says that working people should support the teachers to protest the inflexible approach to labour relations adopted by the government.

"If the provincial government is able to & force an unsatisfactory settlement on (the teachers), it will send a message to all employers that it pays to be inflexible at the bargaining table," writes Steel. "We simply cannot allow this to happen - we need to stand together with the teachers and show employers that the legitimate concerns of workers cannot simply be swept aside."

Steel says that members of the public can demonstrate support for the teachers by writing letters to their local papers and calling their MLA, the Education Minister or the Premier. They can even bring hot food to the teachers on what are sure to be chilly picket lines, says Steel.

"In short, do everything you can to make it clear that the public sides with the teachers," concludes Steel. "It's the only way that we can win this fight - and ensure that Albertans have the kind of high-quality public education system that they deserve."

For more information call:

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

Gil McGowan, AFL Communications     @     780-483-3021

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Human Rights Need Special Attention in Post-September 11 World

This year's International Human Rights Day has particular significance due to the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks, says Alberta Federation of Labour President Les Steel. Steel is marking the annual day by warning Albertans of attacks on civil liberties both at home and abroad.

"In the necessary fight against terrorism, it is vital we do not compromise our own civil liberties," says Steel. "But I fear in the stampede to protect security we may at times forget we are signatories to the UN Declaration on Human Rights."

"Bill C-36 and C-42 have the potential to seriously undermine our civil liberties. In our bid to catch bad guys, I am afraid we are going to tighten a noose around legitimate debate and dissent."

Steel points out that over 1,000 people are being detained without charges in the U.S. since September 11. There is no way of knowing how many are terrorists and how many are innocent people with opinions the government doesn't like. Or how many are simply being held in error.

Steel also urged world leaders to not lose sight of human rights abuses around the world. "Our search for bin Laden should not allow other abuses to accelerate simply because our attention is distracted. We must send a consistent signal to all governments that human rights must be respected."

December 10th, the 53rd anniversary of the signing of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, is recognized annually as International Human Rights Day.

"December 10th is an important day. And this year it is even more important," Steel concludes.

For more information call: Les Steel, AFL President @ (780)- 483- 3021 office or  (780) 499- 4135 (cell)

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WCB premium increase means employers will finally pay the real cost of workplace injuries

Employers in Alberta will soon be required to pay WCB premiums that more accurately reflect the real cost of workplace injuries - and that's a good thing, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"For years now, the WCB has been using investment income to keep premiums artificially low," says AFL president Les Steel. "As a result of this practice, the incentive for employers to maintain safe work sites has been undermined. Basically, businesses have been getting a free ride."

Steel was responding to the announcement earlier today that WCB premiums will be increased by 27.3 percent. The WCB said increases are needed to cover the cost of benefits for injured workers and keep the board in the black.

Steel says the financial crunch at the WCB was caused by the board's over-reliance on income from volatile market investments - a practice which the labour movement has criticized for years - coupled with a significant increase in workplace injury rates.

"The reality is that employers in this province are hurting more workers," says Steel. "As accident rates increase, we think premiums should also go up to reflect the real cost of claims. If employers want premiums to go down, then they should make their workplaces safer. It's as simple as that."

Despite predictable complaints from business, Steel says the premium increases are both necessary and desirable.

"For the first time in years, employers in this province are going to be responsible for covering the real cost of the injuries that occur on their worksites. We in the labour movement support this change and hope it convinces employers to take workplace health and safety more seriously."

Between 1994 and 1999, employer premiums dropped 53%, from $2.29 per $100 of insured earnings to $1.07. During the same period the only substantial change to worker benefits was to severely disabled workers. Most workers received no enhanced benefits.

Steel points out that even with the increase announced today, employer premiums are only 71% of 1994 rates. "Employers are still getting a bargain in this province," he says.

For more information call:  Les Steel, AFL President @ (780) 499-4135

- or -

Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ (780) 483-3021

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Government over-reacts to revenue decline

EDMONTON - The provincial government's decision to cut infrastructure spending and impose a public-sector hiring freeze is hard to justify in light of the rosy financial figures released today, says Alberta Federation of Labour president Les Steel.

According to the government's own documents, the provincial economy is expected to grow by 4.9 percent in 2001 - more than double the national average. At the same time, private and public sector investment is expected to increase by 14.2 percent.

"The Premier and the Finance Minister want Albertans to believe that we can no longer afford to hire desperately needed staff in areas like health and education. And they want us to believe we can no longer afford to invest in infrastructure," says Steel. "But the government's own budget forecast paints a different picture. There doesn't seem to be any good reason to embark on another austerity program."

Steel points out that the price of oil is exactly what the government predicted it would be at this time - and the price of natural gas is only marginally lower.

"It's true that the international economy has taken a turn for the worse and that places like Ontario and the U.S. are edging toward a recession," said Steel. "But here in Alberta, the sky is not falling."

Steel says the labour movement is particularly concerned about the public-sector hiring freeze, deferred construction projects and the decision to reduce transportation grants to municipalities - which have already been cut in half over the past seven or eight years.

"The hiring freeze means that we won't be able to deal with the staffing shortage that is currently undermining service in areas like health care and children's services," says Steel. "And the decision to defer infrastructure projects and further reduce grants to municipality's means that our province's infrastructure will continue to deteriorate. These projects were already long overdue. This is just going to make a bad situation worse."

Steel says the government's new fiscal plan proves - once again - that the Klein Tories have an unhealthy and inflexible focus on debt elimination at all costs.

"They want Albertans to believe that cuts to people and services are the only option," he says. "But there are other options for dealing with the dip in natural gas revenues. What about 'deferring' debt elimination for a few years? And what about 'deferring' tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy until resource prices rebound? The government has to realize that cuts are not the solution to every problem."

For more information call:    Les Steel, AFL President @ (780) 499-4135

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Prepare for Autumn of Unrest, Says AFL President

In his annual Labour Day message AFL President Les Steel predicts a fall of labour unrest, as workers take action for fairness at their workplaces.

"As Albertans sit on our decks, enjoying the last bits of summer weather, we should be readying ourselves for a fall of labour disputes. I predict that this fall will be a busy one for the labour movement," says Steel.

"Health care strikes in the summer were just the beginning. I believe we will see workers in many industries take steps to defend their rights. It will be a busy fall."

"Two things are combining to create an atmosphere of worker militancy," says Steel. "First, two large groups of public sector workers have had enough of years of cutbacks and overwhelming workloads. Federal employees and teachers will both be taking action, and possibly striking, to address important issues of overwork, stress and the quality of the service they provide the public."

"On the private sector side, workers want to make sure they are getting a fair share of the economic prosperity. Employers are making record profits. There is a growing labour shortage and the growing need for workers is giving workers leverage that they will put to good use. This is especially true in the building trades."

Steel says workers' growing willingness to take a stand against their employer is a sign that the labour movement is on the rebound. "Workers have taken a lot of hits in the past few years, and I think there is renewed determination to balance the scales again."

Steel predicted the public sector will lead the season of labour action. Teachers are expected to take action when the school year begins in September, and could be on a widespread strike later in the fall.

"Teachers have had to put up with years of overcrowded classrooms and increasing pressure to hold our schools together under adverse conditions. Now that the government has racked up years of multi-billion dollar surpluses, they want attention turned back to education and fixing our school system."

"The government has insulted the teachers by basically legislating the wage increase before negotiations could go anywhere. The government has created this impasse with its arrogant approach to addressing education issues."

Steel highlighted that a serious teacher shortage is looming, and the current government's attitude will only make things worse. "We need to make sure we keep our teachers and attract many more young people into the profession. This government is doing the opposite."

Similar issues abound at the federal government, Steel observed. "PSAC members working for the federal government will be on a large scale strike within weeks, and maybe days," says Steel.

"They know that government cuts have affected the quality of services, despite their best efforts to hold things together. Their strike is about supporting public services like EI, pensions, environment and other programs."

"Now is the time for workers to be more determined in our efforts for a fair wage and working conditions. The economy is strong and many sectors, including construction, retail and health care, are experience labour shortages," Steel points out. "This gives workers a rare opportunity to use some economic leverage to improve working conditions."

Steel also warns Albertans that a review of the labour laws will be coming sometime in the next year or so. "With the right wing tendencies of this government, I won't be holding my breath for any great improvements."

He indicates that the AFL will take a lead role in any review that occurs, making sure the government hears the voice of workers.

"We will be very busy. The work of defending workers' rights never ends," Steel concluded.

For further information, contact:

Les Steel, President   @ (780) 499-4135(cell)  or (780) 475-4668(home)

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