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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Review of Longstanding Claims A "Victory" for Injured Workers

The Alberta Federation of Labour responded to the government's planned changes to WCB by stating that it had positive and negative impacts on workers. The AFL singled out the promise to establish a one-time tribunal to review longstanding contentious claims as a positive step for injured workers.

"The tribunal to review past claims is a victory for injured workers," says AFL President Les Steel. "Over the years many workers were unjustly denied WCB benefits because of flaws in the WCB system. This one-time review provides a change to correct those past wrongs."

Steel cites the case of the Medicine Hat Transit workers exposed to methanol as an example of a case clearly deserving of a second look. "We need someone with a fresh eye to look at these cases and determine if the worker was treated fairly."

Other changes, Steel says, are a mixture of good, bad and too early to tell. "The changes are a mixed bag for workers. There are some things that will help workers, but there are some proposals I am concerned about as well."

"The WCB has been out of control for the past few years, I am hopeful some of the changes will force the WCB to be more accountable to Albertans." Steel highlights the requirements for an Annual General Meeting and the new Accountability Framework as examples.

Other positive changes include:

  • Eliminating the CSRC, the in-house appeal panel, which only served to delay the appeal process
  • Moving the Appeals Commission and Appeals Advisors out from under WCB
  • Legislating a 30 day requirement on WCB to implement appeal decisions

Steel says he is concerned about structural changes being made to the Appeals Commission. "Eliminating the employer and worker commissioners has the potential to unravel all the other good changes to the appeal system."

Steel is also opposed to making the Commissioners their own Board of Directors. "The people writing the decisions need to be accountable to some body above them. They can't police themselves."

Steel is disappointed the government did not move forward on recommendations to fund independent advocates for injured workers. "Workers should have a right to choose their advocate in an appeal."

"We have been saying for years that the WCB is ignoring injured workers. I think the Minister finally heard our message. And he seems to have gotten it partly right." Steel concluded. "And rest assured we will be talking with him about the rest of it."

For further information, contact:

Les Steel, President   @ (780) 499-4135
Jason Foster, Director of Policy Analysis @ (780) 483-3021

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AFL calls on Federal government to mark June 21st --- Aboriginal Peoples Solidarity Day, as a recognized statutory holiday

EDMONTON - "It's time the Federal government formally take responsibility for the historical injustices faced by Canada's aboriginal peoples.  I see no better time than today to do that, by making this a statutory holiday," says Kerry Barrett, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"Over 300 delegates at our Convention in May felt that recognizing June 21st as a statutory holiday was a great first step for the country to take in demonstrating a commitment to its aboriginal peoples.  We must acknowledge their contributions, and ensure Aboriginal peoples are afforded the same social, political and economic rights the rest of Canadians enjoy," says Barrett.

June 21st was set aside to recognize the diversity of aboriginal people and their many valued contributions to Canada.  The day also highlights the struggles aboriginal people have embarked on for social justice, equality and the strength of unions and communities.

"Aboriginal people have had to battle colonial domination, and in some ways are still having to. Inequalities persist in communities and workplaces that place Aboriginal people at a distinct disadvantage," says Barrett.

"Aboriginal workers continue to have a hard time in the labour market.  With an unemployment rate that is 3.6 time higher than the average Canadian worker, Aboriginal workers are also hit with a 56.4% wage gap.  These workers are earning less than white workers and workers of colour in this country.  For me, these are clear signals that there isn't a level playing field, and Aboriginal workers are losing ground."

"In the labour movement, the work we do to strengthen the voices of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters becomes part of the larger fight for Aboriginal rights.  We, too, have an obligation to address the injustices faced by our Aboriginal members in their workplaces and within their communities," says Barrett.

The Federation has affirmative action positions on its executive council, as well as a Workers of Colour and Aboriginal Workers Working Group.

"As an organization representing labour, we support aboriginal land claims, aboriginal sovereignty and aboriginal rights to self-determination.  We owe this support to our aboriginal brothers and sisters," says Barrett.

For more information, please contact:  Kerry Barrett, Secretary-Treasurer   @   (403) 504-5217

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AFL cautions government about the pitfalls of denying paramedics the right to strike


NOTE: The original version of this news release was sent out this morning with the wrong contact number for AFL President Les Steel. The proper number is 780-475-4668

EDMONTON - A government plan to formally deny ambulance workers the right to strike will poison the relationship between paramedics and their employers and make it easier for the government to sweep service-related problems under the carpet, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.

In a brief submitted to a government taskforce today, the AFL said it's not in the public's best interest to see the government's so-called �essential service� legislation expanded to cover emergency medical workers - thereby denying them the right to strike.
�If the recent dispute between paramedics and the City of Edmonton taught us anything, it's that banning strikes and attempting to turn hard-working health care professionals into criminals simply does not work,� says AFL President Les Steel.

The AFL brief argues that any move to outlaw strikes will inevitably undermine the bargaining process and poison relations between employers and workers.
�When workers have the right to strike there is a clear incentive for both parties to compromise and work towards agreement at the bargaining table,� says the brief. �However, in situations where workers do not have the right to strike, the employer has no real incentive to bargain in good faith.�

When employers use strike bans as an excuse not to bargain, workers end up feeling �under-valued� and �brushed off�, says the brief. This poisons the relationship between employers and workers - and in the case of emergency medical services, it could lead to a deterioration in service levels and problems in attracting and retaining skilled staff.
The AFL also says that a ban on strikes will make it easier for the province and various municipal governments to sweep service-related problems under the carpet.

�During negotiations leading up to the recent paramedics' strike in Edmonton, the paramedics wanted to talk about inadequate staffing levels and the shortage of ambulances on Edmonton streets - especially when compared to Calgary,� says Steel.

�But because the City was refusing to bargain in good faith, these issues were never addressed. Clearly, the public would have benefited from an open and frank discussion between management and the union on these issues. But that didn't happen - largely because the City was relying on a strike-ban and binding arbitration to force a deal on the paramedics. This was a clear example of how removing the right to strike is not in the public interest.�

For more information contact:

Les Steel, AFL President     @     780-475-4668 (hm)

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Government Creates False "Emergency" to Strip Ambulance Workers of Rights

The AFL reacted to the government announcement of a Public Emergency Tribunal in the Edmonton paramedic dispute by denouncing it as an act of a "two bit dictator". The move sweeps away the ambulance workers' rights without respect to process or to the legal right to strike.

"This government is acting like a two-bit dictator," says AFL President Les Steel. "When rights become inconvenient, they act single-handedly to sweep away those rights. This sounds like something a third world dictator would do."

Steel notes that under the Labour Relations Code, paramedics and ambulance workers have the right to strike. By imposing a settlement if one is not found in the next 30 days, the government is overturning this legal right without going through the appropriate legislative process. "It is legislation by decree, which I thought was outlawed in this country."

"Why is the government picking on the workers? Why is it not ordering the City to bargain fairly and find a settlement?" Steel asks.

"There is no public emergency here," Steel added. "This is a transparent excuse to strip away the right to strike from ambulance workers. There is no justification for a Tribunal and forced arbitration." Steel states the government has not adequately proven the existence of an emergency. "The City had contingency plans. Hospitals are still operating at full speed."

"The best way to prevent disruption is to ensure both sides are serious about finding a settlement. Today's action by the Minister makes that less likely, as the City now has no reason to bargain."

"The province has inappropriately taken sides in this dispute. By stripping away the right to strike, it puts the workers into a no-win situation." Steel points out that the City now has nothing forcing it to bargain fairly. If it waits 30 days, the province will come up with a settlement for it.

"If the Minister is capable of sweeping away the right to strike for these workers, who is next? Who is next to arbitrarily lose their rights to this government?" Steel concluded.

For more information call:

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

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AFL will elect new president and council tomorrow

EDMONTON - Union leaders and activists attending the biennial convention of the Alberta Federation of Labour will elect a new President, Secretary-Treasurer and Executive Council tomorrow morning.

The current president, Audrey Cormack, is stepping down after serving three two-year terms at the helm of Alberta's largest labour organization.

The new officers and council members will be selected by delegates representing dozens of union locals from around the province.

The elections will be the highlight of the final day of the AFL convention, which is currently being held at the Crowne Plaza-Chateau Lacombe Hotel in Edmonton. The hotel is located at 10111 Bellamy Hill.

The elections will be held between 11 and 11:30 a.m. on May 6 in the hotel's main ballroom.

Another highlight of the day will be a presentation at 10 a.m. from the Calgary Coalition on Police Brutality. The Coalition will talk about the excessive use of force by police on the Calgary Herald picket line and at the World Petroleum Congress that was held in Calgary last year.

Closing ceremonies will begin at noon and the convention will adjourn at 12:45 p.m. The new president will be available to talk to reporters between 12:45 and 1 p.m. After that, the new Executive will have its first meeting.

For more information call:

Gil McGowan, AFL Communication @ 990-2650 or 910-1137 (cell)

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