EDMONTON - The last Labour Day of the 20th century provides us with a unique opportunity to reflect upon all the positive contributions that the labour movement has made to our province over the past 100 years, says Audrey Cormack, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour. It also gives us a chance to begin planning for a new century of workplace activism, she adds.
"When you look at how things have changed over the past 100 years, you really develop an appreciation for what unions have accomplished," says Cormack. "At the turn of the last century, there were no rights or protections in place for workers. There were no health and safety laws. There were no pensions or health care plans. There was no minimum wage. And workers were entirely at the whim of their employers. Unions changed all of that."
Through a commitment to defend workers and to fight for social change, unions in Canada and Alberta forced a large number of positive changes - everything from the 40-hour work week to WCB to unemployment insurance, to health benefits and pensions.
"Unions raised the bar for all workers," says Cormack.
Of course, there are those who claim that organized labour's victories are all in the past, that unions have outlived their usefulness. But Cormack says nothing could be farther from the truth.
"The weeks leading up to Labour Day 1999 have offered some grim reminders of why unions are as important as ever," she says.
"The horrible explosion at the Home oil recycling plant in Calgary brought home for all of us the need to remain vigilant when it comes to issues of health and safety. The desperate hunger strike by a group of injured workers in front of the WCB office encouraged us to think about what is going wrong with the workers' compensation system. And repeated reports of employers violating basic employment standards have reminded us that many working Albertans are still not being treated fairly by their bosses."
When it comes to issues like health and safety, WCB and the protection of basic workplace rights, Cormack says that there is still clearly a major role for unions to play. There is also an important role for unions to play when it comes to broader social, political and economic issues, she adds.
"On social and economic issues, unions have always been at the forefront of the struggle to defend workers' interests," says Cormack. "For example, the labour movement led the fight to defeat the Conservatives' private hospital bill, Bill 37. Unions also played a pivotal role in convincing the Klein government to increase Alberta's abysmally low minimum wage. Every day, union activists continue to work with community groups on a wide range of social and economic justice issues. Without unions, much of this important work would not be done."
Given all the challenges that confront working people at the end of the 20th century, Cormack says it's clear that unions have not lost their relevance or importance.
"Far from it," she says. "Just look at what's been happening in the world economy and the local economy over the past 20 years. Declining real wages. On-going job insecurity. Deep cuts to public services. Corporations moving jobs to low-wage countries in the Third world. The polarization between people who work too many hours and those who don't have enough work. In this kind of environment, working people clearly still need the kind of protection that unions provide - maybe now more than ever."
Cormack says that the benefits of belonging to a union are as clear today as they have ever been. She points out that union member's fare better on almost every scale than their non-union counterparts.
For example, the average union wage in Canada is $18.57 per hour compared to $14.04 for non-union workers. Union workers are also far more likely to be paid premium wages for the overtime hours they work; they are much more likely to have a pension plan; and they are more likely to have access to extended health and dental benefits.
At the same time, studies have shown that unionized workers have more job security and higher levels of job satisfaction. These higher levels of job satisfaction, in turn, lead to higher levels of productivity in unionized firms.
"Based on all the research that is available, it's clear that it still makes sense to belong to a union," says Cormack. "Unions are good for workers because they improve wages, benefits and job security. Unions are also good for the economy as a whole because they boost consumer-spending power improve the stability of our communities. Unions are even good for business because they improve productivity. It's a win-win situation."
Cormack says that despite the current boom in the Alberta economy, the need for unions in the province is as great as ever. She points out that between 1983 and 1998 the real wages of hourly-paid workers in Alberta fell by 12 per cent. At the same time, more people have been forced into part-time jobs or low-paid self-employment.
"There are major changes sweeping through the economy and the workplace. More and more, working people are being treated like commodities - like post-it notes that can be used and then discarded," says Cormack. "In this kind of environment, unionized workers are in a much better position to protect their rights. Unions can provide shelter against the storm."
This message - that unions can help workers defend themselves against the ravages of the global economy - has not been lost on Alberta workers, says Cormack. Union organizing activity in the province is on the upswing and unions are growing.
"Despite Alberta's lousy labour laws, the provincial labour movement is continuing to expand and grow," says Cormack, pointing out that union membership in the province has grown from 253,000 in 1997 to 268,000 in 1998 and 280,000 so far in 1999. In other words, union membership in Alberta has increased by 11 percent in just two years. This growth rate outpaces the overall growth in the workforce - and gives Alberta the distinction of having one of the fastest growing provincial labour movements in the country.
"This trend towards growing union membership is something that we are very proud of," says Cormack. "But we don't intend to rest on our laurels."
In the next year - and into the new century - Cormack says that unions in Alberta will continue to put a priority on organizing new members - and the AFL will continue fighting to bring workplace justice to an ever-wider group of working Albertans.
In addition to supporting the organizing efforts of individual unions, Cormack says the AFL will also continue its campaign against private health and chronic under-funding in important public services like education and health care. Given that the provincial government has recorded approximately $10 billion in budget surpluses over the past six years, she says the time has clearly come for significant on-going re-investment in public services and programs. Cormack says the AFL will continue putting pressure on the government to increase staff at hospitals, reduce classroom sizes and boost transfers to municipalities.
"As was the case at the beginning of the 20th century, working people are now confronted with a wide range of challenges," says Cormack. "As we enter the 21st century, the labour movement will continue to defend the gains that have been made over the past 100 years. We will also turn our attention to new challenges - like globalization, racism and discrimination and protecting the environment.
"In short, we will go into the 21st century the same way we went into the 20th century - fighting hard to protect the rights and interests of working people."
For more information call:
Alberta Federation of Labour @ 483-3021 (work) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (home)
EDMONTON - As a result of the provincial government's on-going obsession with debt repayment, Albertans are not getting the kind of high-quality public services they deserve - and which they can afford, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"This government has spent the past seven years trying to convince Albertans that we can no longer afford to maintain the quality of public services in this province," says Audrey Cormack.
"But the huge budget surpluses that have been recorded over the past six years prove that this isn't the case. The truth is that this government has an embarrassment of riches. There is no good reason why citizens living in such a wealthy province should be forced to accept chronically under-funded services like education and health care."
Cormack's comments came after it was revealed that the government is predicting a $2 billion budget surplus for the 1999-2000 fiscal year. This would be on top of the $8 billion in surpluses accumulated since 1994.
"It's hard to understand how a province that has so much potential revenue at its disposal could have problems with over-crowded classrooms, health care waiting lists and crumbling roads," says Cormack. "Yet that's exactly what's happening. Members of the Klein government should be ashamed of themselves."
The problems currently being experienced in education, health care and other public services are the direct result of the government's obsession with eliminating every cent of debt, says Cormack. She says the government's "radical approach" to issues of debt repayment is best exemplified by the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Act, which prohibits the government from spending any portion of its surplus on programs. Only one-time expenditures are allowed.
"What this legislation means is that we are locked into inadequate levels of spending on programs like health care, education and transportation for the next 20 years," says Cormack, adding that one-time cash infusions won't change the situation.
"The one-time spending initiative promised by the Premier and the Treasurer won't solve the problems in our hospital and schools," she says. "What good is it to build a new hospital or school if you don't have on-going program funding to staff it? And what good is using a one-time grant to pave a road if you don't have enough program funding to maintain it properly?"
Cormack says the time has come for the government to admit that the so-called debt crisis of the early 90s is over and to adopt a more balanced approach to debt repayment and program spending.
"Alberta's debt is under control. We currently only spend about $1 billion - or 6.8 percent of the annual budget - on debt servicing. This is a truly enviable position. Surely we could ease off on efforts to eliminate the debt entirely. Instead, the government should turn its attention to an area where there is a real crisis - and that's the area of on-going program spending for important public services."
For more information call:
Alberta Federation of Labour @ 483-3021 (work) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (home)
EDMONTON - The Alberta government is not doing nearly enough to protect workers - especially young workers, women and immigrants - from abuse and unfair treatment in the workplace, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"Over the past few years, the number of employment standards complaints filed with the government has jumped by 50 percent - from 4,951 in 1993 to 7,405 in 1998," says AFL Secretary Treasurer Les Steel. "These numbers tell a disturbing story. It's clear that Albertans are not getting the kind of protection they deserve in the workplace."
Steels comments came in response to a proposal made earlier today by the New Democrat Opposition regarding the establishment of an independent office to advocate on behalf of workers who have been unfairly treated by their employers.
In a news conference, ND labour critic Raj Pannu said a Workers' Advocate is needed to assist in resolving individual complaints and, more importantly, to pressure the government into putting a higher priority on investigating complaints and enforcing its own employment standards rules.
"The sad truth is that the current government often turns a blind eye on employers who mistreat their workers," says Steel. "Alberta's Employment Standards rules are not that bad - the problem is they are not aggressively enforced."
Steel says the ND proposal would be an important step in the right direction - but he says it would only be part of the solution. If the government really wants to "clean up its act" on employment standards, he says it would need to take a number of other steps.
For example, Steel says more inspectors should be hired to investigate complaints. This is especially important considering that the Labour department's workforce was nearly cut in half as a result of the Klein budget cuts. Steel also says the government should move away from it's current "complaint driven" system for investigation. Too often, problem employers go undetected and unpunished because employees are too afraid to complain. What's needed, says Steel, is a system in which government investigators can launch their own independent investigations and spot checks.
Finally, Steel says the government has to get serious about levying substantial fines against employers who consistently ignore the rights of their workers. He says that a "big stick" is the only thing that problem employers understand.
"In the end, what's really needed is for this government to make a strong commitment to protecting the rights of working people," says Steel. "Establishing a Workers' Advocate office would be an important step in the right direction."
For further information contact:
Les Steel, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 483-3021 (wk) / 499-4135 (cell)
EDMONTON - Nurses in Alberta deserve the heartfelt thanks and congratulations of all Albertans for their strong stand in defense of quality health care - both at the bargaining table and away from it, says a spokesman for the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"All Albertans owe the nurses and their union, the United Nurses of Alberta, a great debt of gratitude," said AFL Secretary Treasurer Les Steel after learning that the nurses had ratified their latest collective agreement with health care boards and the operators of long-term care facilities around the province.
"The latest contract negotiations were just part of the nurses' on-going battle to defend the quality and accessibility of health services in Alberta," said Steel. "At no time were the nurses only thinking of themselves. Right from the beginning, their major goal was to preserve and protect the quality of care in Alberta's health care system.
"That's why they called for the hiring of new staff - so we could ease the critical staff shortages affecting hospitals and other health facilities across the province. And that's why they called for salary increases - so we could attract the nurses we need to make the system work effectively."
Steel says that the nurses have been at the forefront of the campaign to protect Medicare in Alberta ever since the Klein government started it's budget slashing campaign in 1993 - a campaign that resulted in the closure of almost half the hospital beds in Edmonton and Calgary and which threw literally thousands of health care workers out of work.
"I think the Alberta health care system would be in even worse shape than it is if it wasn't for the actions taken by the nurses and other health care workers. These workers have led the fight against under-funding and under-staffing. What little re-investment in health care that there has been is, to a large extent, the result of the work done by UNA and other health care workers and unions."
Steel admits that the latest collective agreement is not everything the nurses wanted. But he said several important steps have been taken in the right direction - especially when it comes to things like scheduling, wages and workload.
"The struggle continues," said Steel. "Over the next few years, there will be more battles - over things like funding, adequate staffing levels and the spread of private, for-profit health care. As usual, the nurses will be at the forefront - along with all the other health care unions in this province."
For more information call:
Les Steel, AFL Secretary Treasurer: 483-3021 (W) or 499-4135 (Cell)
EDMONTON - Workers at the Georgia-Pacific Wallboard plant in Northeast Edmonton are back at work today after voting to accept a new collective agreement which offers pay increases and no concessions or job losses. The deal comes after a six and a half month strike by members of Boilermakers Union Local D-513.
"The company retreated on all of its major concession demands," said Jeff Wood, President of Local D-513.
"This represents an important victory not only for the workers at Georgia-Pacific, but it is also an important symbolic victory for all workers," said Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "A small group of 50 workers took on a huge American corporation with U.S.-style bargaining tactics and won. Their solidarity and sense of fairness saw them through."
Georgia-Pacific forced the strike last December by locking workers out and demanding a series of concessions, which would have led to longer lay-off periods for workers and significant reductions in overtime pay and health benefits.
There were no major concessions in the deal that was accepted in a membership vote last week. The deal included wage increases and improvements to some benefits. "The workers came out of this with a fair deal and they didn't have to take any concessions. The company backed off," said Wood.
Georgia-Pacific is the largest building products manufacturer in North America. Based in Atlanta, they brought their style of management to Edmonton when they bought the plant a couple years ago. Throughout the strike, they refused to bargain directly and insisted their position was non-negotiable. "The workers proved them wrong," said Steel.
In addition to defeating the concession demands, the union successfully negotiated job protection and solid severance arrangements. It was revealed during negotiations that the
company plans to open a new "super-plant" three years from now. It will be located either in southern B.C. or southern Alberta. The union won a guarantee of union certification at the new plant as well as first-pick at jobs at the new plant.
"I believe the company's real agenda in this strike was to bust the union and set up a new non-union super-plant. The company forgot that Alberta workers are not defeated that easily," said Steel. "The Boilermakers members stood firm and the company's agenda failed."
"We said all along we just wanted to get back to work. Now we are back and we are very happy about it. We won an important victory," said Wood.
"I think employers should take note of this settlement. It is a message to employers that Alberta workers will defend our rights to the very end," concluded Steel.
For more information call:
Jeff Wood, President, Boilermakers Local D-513:
945-9328 (Cell - before 2 pm) or 462-7254 (Home - for messages)
Les Steel, AFL Secretary-Treasurer:
483-3021 (W) or 499-4135 (Cell)
EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Ralph Klein has another thing coming if he thinks a few free hot dogs and drinks will make up for years of brutal budget cuts, wage rollbacks and public-sector lay-offs, says a spokesperson for Alberta's largest labour organization.
"The Premier wants to throw a party, but what would really be more appropriate is a wake," said Les Steel, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "Most Albertans are in no mood to celebrate the declining quality and accessibility of public services in this province."
Steel's comments were made in response to a public party held on the steps of the Legislature over the lunch hour today. The party - which included free hot dogs, drinks and ice cream - was staged to thank public-sector workers and members of the general public for their help in paying off the province's so-called "net debt."
"This government has balanced its books on the backs of public-sector workers and at the expense of public services," said Steel. "They have cut funding for health care, education and municipalities. They have undermined support for the poor, the elderly and the sick. They have thrown thousands of people in the public service out of work. And now the Premier wants the very people who have been hurt most by the cuts to join him in a celebration? It's insulting and it's insensitive."
Steel says that if the Premier really wants to thank public-sector workers for their contributions, he should increase their wages, provide better guarantees of job security and ease workloads by hiring more staff in core areas like health care and education. He also said the general public would be in a better mood to party if the government had taken a more balanced approach to fiscal issues.
"Paying off the net debt may be a cause for celebration for bankers and conservative politicians but it's a milestone that doesn't mean much to most Albertans. They know it was only reached by sacrificing the quality of our core public services," says Steel.
"If the Premier really wants Albertans to celebrate, then he should reverse chronic under-funding in areas like education, health care and municipal services. That would be a real cause for celebration. Using all of the budget surplus to pay down Alberta's debt is reckless and irresponsible. It's like a family using all of its income to pay-off the mortgage and leaving nothing to feed and clothe the kids. The bank may like it, but it's not really in the best interest of the family."
For more information call: Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer: 483-3021 (w) or 499-4135 (Cell)
Note: Mr. Steel will also be available at the Legislature grounds between noon and 1 p.m.
EDMONTON - News that the Alberta government is sitting on yet another massive budget surplus proves that Premier Ralph Klein and members of the ruling Conservative party greatly exaggerated the extent of the Alberta's "debt crisis," says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"During the elections of 1993 and 1997, the Tories whipped up fears that Alberta was about to hit a so-called debt wall. They used these fears to sell voters on a radical plan of budget cuts and public-sector down-sizing," says Audrey Cormack.
"But within one year of taking power, the Klein government was recording multi-million-dollar surpluses. In fact, if the surplus tops $1 billion this year as expected, the cumulative surplus for the past five years will be more than $8.3 billion. What this tells me is that the government could have balanced its books and paid off substantial portions of the province's debt without resorting to such deep cuts in areas like health care, education and municipal services."
Cormack says Albertans are still reeling from the massive and poorly planned cuts imposed by the Tories between 1993 and 1997 - and she firmly rejects the argument that the cuts were necessary to balance the books.
"If you look at the numbers, it's clear that cuts in government services played only a secondary role in building the surplus. The lion's share of the government's current wealth has come from increased resource royalties and increased tax revenue generated by the growing economy," says Cormack. "Premier Klein and Stockwell Day like to take all the credit, but the truth is that, to a large extent, the deficits of the early 90s and the surpluses of recent years were both a product of the business cycle. As a result, the deficit would have disappeared even if nothing had been done to reduce spending levels."
Cormack say the big danger now is that the government will use the huge surplus as an excuse to move ahead even more quickly with its plans for sweeping tax cuts - contrary to the wishes of most Albertans and even many people in the business community.
"Albertans want the surplus spent on things like education, health care and fixing our crumbling infrastructure," she says. "That message has come across loud and clear in opinion polls and in public forums like the Growth Summit. Even business leaders have agreed that re-investment in people, services and infrastructure should be a higher priority than tax cuts."
Cormack says the government's plan for a flat provincial income tax is particularly dangerous. She says it would provide disproportionate advantages to the wealthy and rob the government of billions of dollars in revenue it needs to fund core public services.
The flat tax plan is so obviously flawed, that it was almost unanimously p anned by business, municipal and labour leaders attending last Fall's Alberta Congress Board conference, she adds.
"Alberta is clearly still a wealthy province," says Cormack. "But the government seems intent on using its huge surpluses as an excuse to keep our public services impoverished. What Alberta needs is more investment in core services like education and health care - not tax cuts that benefit the wealthy."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, President: (780) 483-3021(work)
(780) 499-6530 (cell)
EDMONTON - The decision to prohibit Alberta nurses from holding a vote on the latest contract offer from their employers proves that Alberta's labour laws are seriously flawed, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"There is something seriously wrong with a law that makes criminals out of people who are simply trying to defend their rights in the workplace," says Audrey Cormack, president of Alberta's largest union organization.
"Nurses and other health care workers in this province have been pushed to the brink by budget cuts and under-staffing. Now they face the prospect of being branded as criminals for having the audacity to fight for a better health care system. What's really criminal here is the way the nurses are being treated by the regional health authorities and the provincial government."
Cormack says Alberta's labour laws impose more restrictions on the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively than any other province.
"In a democracy, workers should not be forced to work against their will by threats of violence, fines or imprisonment," she says. "But that's exactly what's happening in this case and in the case of all other public sector workers who are denied the right to strike. They are being denied a fundamental democratic freedom."
Cormack says the health authorities and the provincial government are using Alberta's labour law to avoid addressing the serious issues that nurses have brought to the table - like concerns over under-staffing, declining morale and inadequate compensation.
"The experience of the 1988 nurses strike proves that you can't find solutions by imposing injunctions and levying fines," says Cormack. "This kind of unnecessarily aggressive approach to bargaining won't stop a strike and it certainly won't do anything to address the crisis in our health care system."
In the short term, Cormack says the solution to the problem lies with the provincial government. She says more money has to be given to the regional health authorities so they can hire more nurses and increase their compensation. In the long term, Cormack says something has to be done with Alberta's labour laws.
"The labour laws in this province are backward and punitive. Far too many workers are being denied the right to strike - which is a fundamental democratic right recognized by the United Nations. Our leaders are going to have to acknowledge that criminalizing strike activity does nothing to solve problems in the workplace."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, AFL President @ (780) 499-6530 (cell)
EDMONTON - Working people in Alberta are being short-changed by a plan announced earlier today to re-organize government departments, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. Audrey Cormack says Premier Klein's plan to establish a new Human Resources and Employment department is "a slap in the face for working people."
"The Premier can go on as much as he likes about stream-lining government and preparing Albertans for the new millennium," says Cormack. "But the bottom line is that the concerns of working people are going to get lost in the shuffle within this new super-department."
According to the plan unveiled by Klein this afternoon, the new Human Resources and Employment department will take responsibility for issues previously handled by the Labour department, the Family and Social Services Department and the Career Development branch of the Economic Development department.
Cormack says the new "super department" will put labour programs in the awkward position of having to compete for resources with programs from the family and social services side of the department.
"There are more than one and half million Albertans who work for a living," says Cormack. "Workplace issues like health and safety and the administration of the Labour Code and the Employment Standards Code are so important that they clearly deserve to be handled in their own separate department."
Cormack says the only rationale given by the Premier to justify the re-organization is that it meshes with the government's promises about putting a higher priority on education and training. But Cormack says there is a lot more to labour issues than training.
"We in the labour movement support efforts to improve training for Albertans - in fact, we've been urging the government to invest more in education and apprenticeships for years," says Cormack.
"But the labour department isn't just about preparing people for work. It's also about promoting health and safety. It's about making sure workers know their rights. It's about protecting those rights in the workplace. And it's about making sure employers know and uphold the law. We're afraid that these issues are not going to get the attention they deserve in the new department."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, AFL President @ 483-3021(wk)/499-6530(cell)/428-9367(hm)
EDMONTON - The president of Alberta's largest workers' organization has some serious concerns about the man who has been appointed minister of the new Human Resources and Employment department.
AFL president Audrey Cormack says a number of "red flags" were raised when she reviewed Clint Dunford's record as an MLA and former Minister of Advanced Education.
"As the new Human Resources minister, Mr. Dunford is now responsible for upholding the rights and interests of Albertans in the workplace," says Cormack. "But based on his track record, I'm not entirely sure that he's the best person for the job."
Cormack says her concerns are based on a number of controversial statements and policy positions taken by Dunford over the past few years. Cormack's list of concerns include the following:
- In November 1997, Dunford said he would like to see the government abolish the minimum wage. He was quoted as saying that wages should be established by the market with no government-guaranteed minimum. "Eventually, labour is going to find its own level based on supply and demand," he told a reporter from the Edmonton Journal.
- In an in-depth interview on the Alberta economy published in the Edmonton Journal in January 1998, Dunford suggested that too many working people take advantage of good economic times to bid up their wages and benefits. Ignoring his earlier arguments about letting the market decide wages, he heaped scorn on workers who capitalize on market conditions to improve their income.
- In April 1998, Dunford was one of several cabinet ministers who supported a plan to raise salaries for deputy ministers and other top provincial bureaucrats by up to $38,000 per year. Dunford's support for huge salary increases for senior bureaucrats came at the same time that the government was negotiating much more meager wage increases with rank-and-file public sector workers.
- Throughout his tenure as Advanced Education minister, Dunford allowed tuition fees to rise dramatically at universities, colleges and technical schools throughout the province. As recently as this winter, he was quoted as saying that tuition increases are inevitable.
"I am deeply troubled by some of the positions that Mr. Dunford has taken over the years," says Cormack. "How can workers be confident that their interests are being taken care of by a minister who says the minimum wage should be abolished and that workers should not be allowed to share in the success of their employers during good economic times?"
Despite her concerns about Dunford's controversial remarks and policy positions, Cormack says she is willing to work with the new minister in order to protect the interests and uphold the rights of working Albertans.
"Our big concern is that workplace issues like health and safety and the enforcement of the Employment Standards Code and the Labour Code are going to get lost in the shuffle now that the Labour department has basically been merged with the Family and Social Services department," says Cormack. "We will be watching the new minister and reminding him of the importance of these functions. And we will work with him to make sure that the rights of Albertans in the workplace are not ignored."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, AFL President @ 483-3021(wk)/499-6530(cell)/428-9367(hm)