Labour Day picnic paints bleak jobs picture: Free food draws many families struggling to make ends meet

EDMONTON - For the first time in years, John Sampson has job-related benefits.

"I haven't had new glasses in over five years. I need bifocals," he said. Sampson, a welder by trade, has just passed the five-month mark at his new full-time job as a shipper-receiver.

The benefits are a much appreciated coup, even though Sampson describes himself as "barely employed."

"I'm not happy where I am," he said. "If you look at the want ads, there are no welding jobs available. I have to do what I have to do in order to survive."

But Sampson counted himself among the lucky ones at Giovanni Caboto Park on Monday, where hundreds of unemployed and underemployed Edmontonians gathered for the annual Labour Day barbecue hosted by the Edmonton and District Labour Council.

Stretching across the park, the lineup for free burgers, fruit, juice and ice cream was indicative of the region's labour situation, said union leaders.

"It's shameful. Take a look," said Guy Desforges, president of Local 445 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada. "All I see are (businesses) getting shut down, closed down, and moved to other places and nothing's staying here."

While numbers released by Statistics Canada last month show Alberta's unemployment rate has improved to 6.3 per cent in July, down from 7.2 per cent a year ago, Desforges was cautious about the progress, noting that full-time jobs have been replaced by part-time positions.

In July, Alberta lost 13,000 full-time jobs while gaining 21,700 part-time ones.

Workers, then, are "not making enough money to live," said Nancy Furlong, secretary treasurer for the Alberta Federation of Labour. "They have to have two part-time jobs to live."

Still, picnickers were optimistic that a full economic recovery is on the horizon.

"We're going to bail out of it," said Darcy Robinson, 24.

"There's really not much out there that pays," added Gary Nesterchuk, who has been off work for about a year and a half. But, he said, "I have a positive attitude."

Things will start looking up in about a year, Furlong predicted. "It's expected that '11 will continue to be bad and by '12, we'll be back in another boom," she said. While this is promising news, she warned that the government cannot sit back.

"We seem to always be on a boom or a bust cycle here in Alberta," she said. "I don't see any efforts on behalf of the government to balance the economy and to smooth out those big dips and spikes."

Furlong wanted to see more industrial diversity, more control over the pace of oilsands development, and more effective immigration policies for addressing labour shortages in good economic times.

NDP MLA Rachel Notley echoed many of Furlong's suggestions, and added that the province needs to invest in a green infrastructure, make higher education more accessible, and insist that jobs, such as those in the oil industry, do not get sent to the United States.

"These are all things the provincial government has jurisdiction over, but they're failing to act," she said.

As for Sampson, he hopes to get back into welding next year, but he's happy to have a stable job now.

"I see a lot of people. I see a lot of younger ones that I know are on the streets and I see a lot of young families trying to get by," he said.

Sampson knows what it's like -- several years ago, he spent three months living in homeless shelters.

This year, he came back to the barbecue to see if he could offer guidance to others. "I know they want to get out, but they just need a kick in the butt or guidance from somebody who's been through that."

Edmonton Journal, Tues Sept 7 2010
Byline: Jennifer Fong

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