EDMONTON - Despite a booming economy and an expected multi-billion-dollar budget surplus, the Alberta government will not likely use the upcoming session of the Legislature to make life any easier for working people, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"Thanks to our abundant natural resources and our strong provincial economy, we are in a better position than any other province in the country to shore up the programs and services that really matter to people," says Les Steel.
"Yet our government is showing no interest in addressing the social deficit it created through years of short-sighted and mean-spirited fiscal policy. In fact, most senior members of the government have their heads firmly in the sand when it comes to acknowledging the problems their own policies have created."
Steel says the government's attitude towards needed social spending was summed up recently when the Education minister denied that parents were being forced to fund-raise for classroom essentials and when a government backbencher accused the Edmonton Public School Board of "grandstanding" when they announced a huge budget shortfall.
"Where have these people been?" asks Steel. "Despite our vast wealth, this government has consistently under-funded the services that matter most to Albertans. But instead of acknowledging the role their own policies have played in the erosion of quality services, they blame the victims. They say it's the teachers fault or the school boards fault - anyone but their own. It's incredible."
As a result of the government on-going ideological aversion to social spending - and their continuing refusal to shed their right-wing, rose-coloured glasses when looking at the consequences - Steel says the next session of the Legislature may be more memorable for the problems it doesn't deal with than for those it does.
"What about the minimum wage?" asks Steel. "We've slipped to the bottom of the pack in the country - again. And what about labour law reform? Last year we saw just how uneven the playing field is for workers during the Shaw Conference Centre strike in Edmonton. And the Minister struck a committee to consider changes. But where are the reforms? Where are the new protections for workers?"
Aside from all the pressing issues that haven't been put on the table, Steel worries that the government may use the next session of the Legislature to push ahead with dangerous privatization schemes (P-3s in particular) and to "get even" with public-sector workers - particularly nurses and teachers - who recently managed to win long-overdue wage increases.
"The Tories talk a good game when it comes to education and health care," says Steel. "They say our nurses and teachers are valuable and that more needs to be done to attract and retain them. But inside, members of the government caucus are seething. They're not used to anyone standing up to them - and that's exactly what both the teachers and nurses did. So what we're concerned about is retaliation. We're worried the government will continue its lip-service on health and education, while at the same time moving to knife the nurses and teachers in the back."
Steel predicts that revenge against the teachers will come in the form of inadequate funding for education - so that deteriorating standards can be blamed on "greedy" teachers and their recent wage settlement. When it comes to the nurses - who are currently at the bargaining table - Steel worries that the government will emulate B.C. and use legislative power to reach into contracts and nullify provisions that have been on the books for years.
"At the bargaining table, the government has repeatedly brought up the B.C. example," says Steel. "It may be just a tactic to scare the nurses. But on the other hand, it may be more than a threat. Only time will tell."
If the government uses legislation to tear up existing contracts or goes ahead with plans to implement P-3s, they will face a battle with the labour movement, says Steel.
"Both issues are red flags for us," he says. "When it comes to contracts, we believe firmly that a deal is a deal - and we'll fight to save our collective agreements. On the subject of privatization, we're also drawing a line in the sand. We don't think P-3s or any other kind of privatization of core services is in the public interest. We'll fight for a moratorium on these schemes until the government provides proof that they save money or improve service."
For more information, contact:
Les Steel, AFL President at (780) 483-3021 (wk) or (780) 499-4135 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications at (780) 483-3021 (wk)