EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour and the union representing striking A-Channel workers have jointly filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against A-Channel. The unions claim the station attempted to unfairly muzzle the strikers and stop them from communicating with the public. In particular, they say the station tried to de-rail a union-sponsored ad campaign by sending threatening letters to Edmonton area media outlets that had already agreed to run the ads.
"It's a huge irony," says AFL president Les Steel, whose organization worked with the Communication, Energy Paperworkers Local 1900 to design and launch the ad campaign.
"Here we have a company that's in the business of disseminating news and information to the public. But when it comes to news and information from its own employees, they try to throw the muzzle on. It's the height of hypocrisy."
Local 1900's chairperson Adrian Pearce echoed Steel's indignation over A-Channel's actions, adding the station was essentially attempting to coerce other media outlets into breaking contracts with the strikers - something that is clearly not permitted under Canadian civil law.
"We think it's unethical for a news agency like A-Channel to try to impose censorship and attack the freedom of speech that every group is entitled to under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," says Pearce. "A supposedly 'impartial' news gathering station should know better."
Shortly before the union's ad campaign was set to begin in the third week of October, various media outlets in the city received threatening letters from Gerhard Seifner, a lawyer with A-Channel's law firm, McLennan Ross. In the letters, Seifner warned that "anybody publishing this (union) material will be sued."
The threat of legal action was taken seriously by all the targeted news organizations - but it was particularly troubling for small, independent publications like Vue Weekly.
Despite the threats, all the radio stations and all but one of the newspapers contracted by the union eventually determined the ads were legally defensible and agreed to proceed with the campaign (but not without demanding unusual guarantees from the union). The only newspaper that reneged on its ad contract with the unions (the Edmonton Journal) eventually reversed its position and agreed to print the ad.
"From our perspective, this is a clear example of libel chill," says Steel. "A-Channel was using the threat of legal action to stop the flow of information to the public. That this was one media company trying to intimidate other media companies just makes the situation that much worse. The managers at A-Channel should be ashamed of themselves."
Copies of the union's statement of claim and A-Channel's letter are available upon request.
For more information call:
Adrian Pearce, Union Chair CEP 1900 @ 428-5270
Les Steel, AFL President @ 483-3021 or 499-4135
Gil McGowan, AFL Communication @ 483-3021 or 910-1137
Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, November 2003
I probably don't have to tell you that it has not been a banner year for labour or for working people in Alberta.
That's because there has never been a banner year for labour in this province since the Socreds took power in 1934. That's a whole lot of bad years for anyone who's counting.
Alberta still has the worst labour laws in Canada. We still have the lowest minimum wage and the lowest unionization rate in the country.
Workers still cannot get their most basic rights to overtime or holiday pay actually enforced. And if they actually overcome all of the barriers and get a union, all too often they end up in vicious employer-driven first contract disputes like the one currently going on at A Channel in Edmonton.
Health care workers have had their right to belong to the union of their choice stripped away by Bill 27. And it is looking like the government is going to take a run at the nurses next year.
It's pretty obvious that working people in this province desperately need a New Democratic government. But, I can honestly say that we are no closer to one today than we were in 1971.
That's why I think it really is time for us to take stock of how labour and the party work together.
The relationship between the New Democratic Party and the labour movement is going through profound changes across Canada.
Originally, the NDP was the consequence of an alliance between the Cooperative Commonwealth and the Canadian Labour Congress. Labour was not simply a supporter of the NDP - we were a founding partner.
There were many benefits to both the labour movement and the party from this partnership.
The Party received substantial and sustained funding from a dependable source and a cadre of volunteer workers during elections. The Party also received the inside track with union activists and leaders - a sort of pipeline into the organized working class.
The labour movement received substantial legislative support protecting the rights of workers and unions in those jurisdictions fortunate enough to elect New Democrat governments.
Even at the federal level, labour got some sympathetic legislation and programs as a direct result of the popular support for the NDP and its platforms during elections.
But, as with all political alliances, there were also some problems with labour's traditional alliance with the NDP.
Many New Democrats felt that 'big labour' had too much influence on party policies and party affairs - both because of dependency on labour funding and because of the allocation of convention credentials to labour affiliates.
Further, there was a criticism that labour could not 'deliver' its members' votes in the ballot box. Finally, some New Democrats worried that the connection with unions hurt the party electorally.
From labour's perspective, there were significant problems arising from feelings of betrayal when New Democrat governments passed back-to-work legislation or failed to live up to our expectations of a 'labour' government.
There was also some suspicion that the Party saw us more as a cash cow than a partner.
I believe that the tensions between organized labour and the Party have, if anything, been increasing over time.
The breakdown of our traditional relationship is nowhere more evident than in Manitoba - where a New Democrat government basically prohibited labour funding. And I know that Alberta and other provinces are looking at similar policies.
New federal legislation has also put an end to the old style labour support for the federal party.
So, the question before us is: where do we go from here?
In the labour movement, we are seriously looking for new ways to express our political programs and principles. We are trying to find ways to mobilize labour support for the NDP in this new climate.
Right now, the Alberta Federation of Labour has politically committed itself to a program of action based upon the very successful Saskatchewan Federation of Labour's Issues Campaign.
The idea is straightforward. The trade union movement will poll our own rank-and-file members to find out exactly which issues they consider to be of paramount importance.
We will then run focus groups to find out the most effective messaging for putting forward those workers' issues as policy and program demands. Following that we will run a public campaign to place these issues at the forefront of public debate.
In Saskatchewan, the issues campaign focused, among other things, on the critical importance of provincial crown corporations to peoples' quality of life.
Interestingly, the key issue upon which the election in Saskatchewan turned, was the debate over crown corporations.
In essence, we, in labour, are no longer trying to deliver our vote. It just didn't work for union leaders to 'tell' members how to vote. Our members resented it and just refused to listen.
Now, we are identifying workers' real issues and in effect creating political space for these issues.
It will be up to the New Democrats to take advantage of that space before and during elections - just as they did in Saskatchewan.
We are very excited about this new political action program. We are already stating our issues campaign in Alberta - and I believe that this will result in a real and impressive increase in support for the Party in the next election.
Moreover, I believe that the CLC will also be following suit at the national level.
I believe that labour - by running a more independent political action program - will renew worker support for the NDP.
We will see more trade unionists joining the NDP and working for the party during elections.
So to answer to my question: where do labour and the New Democrats go from here?
We go forward to a more effective, healthier relationship - one that will inevitably lead to the first New Democrat government in Alberta.
Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, October 2003
It's been 70 years since Alberta had a government that could even be loosely described as worker friendly - and I'm not really sure that the United Farmers government really fit that definition.
But since 1934 we've only had two parties in power in this province - the Social Credit from 1934 to 1971 and the Conservatives from 1971 on. Both of these parties have traditionally mistrusted labour and actively discouraged labour unions. They neither understood nor sympathized with working people and their aspirations, and took their direction from the corporate sector.
What this has meant for organized labour is a long difficult struggle for survival and a constant uphill battle to protect our members' rights and privileges.
During the last 32 years of Conservative rule, labour unions, labour centrals and labour leaders have tried a broad variety of approaches to the government. Some have sucked up to the government. Some have tried to join the government. Some have tried to ignore them.
None of those approaches have worked. If you suck up, they may throw you an occasional bone - but they will hold you in contempt. If you try to join them you will be incorporated and forgotten. If you ignore them, they will use the power of government to strip you and your organization of any power or gains you have gathered.
What this has left us as a strategy is to oppose the government. We have learned that the only rights we have are the rights we are willing to exercise - and that only when we are actively defending our rights do we have any voice at all in this province.
In fact, I can safely say that the only gains working people have ever made in this province were through mobilization and struggle or through the threat of struggle.
Now I know that none of this is new to Alberta nurses or to your union. Struggle is the forge that UNA was founded and tempered upon. I have set this in front of you both as a complement on your principles and steadfastness and as a warning.
The warning is simple. In any protracted struggle, there comes a time when leaders and rank-and-file members get tired and depressed - and want to consider accommodation as the price of peace.
It's like the guy standing on the street banging his head against a brick wall over and over again. When asked why he was doing it, he replied: 'I don't know, but it sure feels good when I stop.'
Unfortunately for unions, the second we stop taking on employers and bad governments we become part of the problem instead of the solution. The current attempt by the Regional Health Authorities to force UNA into binding interest arbitration is a case in point. It has become obvious to every intelligent observer in the province that Alberta's labour arbitration process is a loaded gun aimed at the trade union movement and our members.
Because the government is ultimately in control of who is named as the supposedly impartial chair of any arbitration board, the employers' votes will always outnumber labour's votes on any award. I know labour activists who will no longer sit as labour representatives on arbitration boards because they are tired of writing dissents and sick of being a party to unjust awards.
In fact, the number of arbitrations in Alberta used to run between 15 and 20 a year back in the early 80's. By the 90's that had dropped to only 2 or 3 a year - as more and more trade unions rejected the arbitration process.
UNA has led the rejection of interest arbitration in this province - steadfastly refusing to be forced to accept the contract stripping and inferior wages and benefits dictated by the process. But clearly, that hasn't stopped the eagerness of health authorities to make use of this biased process.
The Alberta Federation of Labour has being staying in close contact with your union throughout the current round of negotiations. It has become clear that the government and the regional health authorities have been planning a massive stripping of the rights and entitlements of nurses.
First there is the backhanded attempt through Bill 27 to create dissent both within unions and between unions from the forced combining of region-wide bargaining units. The Federation has worked hard to combat the worst effects of Bill 27. We created an ad hoc action committee of effected unions to build a common strategy and tactics to combat the legislation.
Most recently, we have challenged the impartiality of the Labour Relations Board in the entire process. That challenge has yet to be heard by the Board, but believe me; they are on very shaky ground here and may have all of their decisions to date in this matter overturned.
Secondly, there is the behaviour of the employer at the bargaining table. It seems to me that they are deliberately bargaining to impasse in the wild hope that UNA will ultimately agree to go the binding arbitration route. There is no other explanation for the employer sabotage of the bargaining process through ridiculous demands and unwillingness to make compromises.
If negotiations continue to deteriorate to the point where UNA is forced to take action to protect its members, I want to give you an absolute assurance that the Alberta Federation of Labour and all of its affiliates will be there to support you in your actions. We will mobilize the labour movement and act whenever and in whichever fashion your union wants.
Mobilizing Broad Social and Political Action
Supporting affiliates in struggle is one of the most important things labour centrals like the Alberta Federation of Labour do.
But as I said earlier, we also have to pay attention to the underlying causes of labour's constant state of heartburn in this province. After 70 years of conservative, pro-employer misrule in Alberta, it is little wonder that we have the worst labour laws in Canada; nor should it be any surprise that our most important public services and programs are constantly under attack and under-funded.
An underlying bias against working people has permeated every aspect of our government and, consequently, the very fabric of our society. If we are ever to get out of the constant struggle for survival that faces unions every time they go to the bargaining table in Alberta, we are going to have to get rid of this rotten government!
Unfortunately, this is something that is easier said than done. At election time, the employers' parties get the most funding. They get the support of the corporate media. And, they have developed very sophisticated polling and public relations capacities that allow them to manipulate the electorate through spin doctoring and deliberately mystifying issues.
Clearly, traditional labour approaches to politics have proven ineffective against the slick, well-funded corporate machine.
That's why we have just completely reworked our strategies for mobilizing opposition to the government. Following our last convention, the Federation has adopted an ambitious multi-pronged strategy to create change in Alberta.
In the electoral arena, we are directing our resources to a non-partisan 'issues' campaign. The idea, in a nutshell, is to make an accurate assessment of what working people really want - and to create a political demand for our issues through an aggressive public education campaign.
It will then be up to political parties to take advantage of the space created by the campaign.
The Federation also has initiatives to intervene in the broader, non-electoral arena of public opinion and public debate. We have struck four working groups to build public campaigns which should put real pressure on government from several different directions.
There will be a 'living wage' campaign designed to change the debate over minimum wage to a tangible demand for a living wage. It will involve mobilization of labour, church groups, social justice advocates and others.
We also have a working group mandated to create workers' resource centres across the province to provide broad services for unorganized workers.
We are also mapping out a long term campaign aimed at creating better labour laws in Alberta.
Finally, we are, with the Alberta Teachers' Association, working toward the launching of Public Interest Alberta - a broad coalition designed to protect the public good and to mobilize support for public services and public spaces.
The fundamental premise behind all of these working groups is build social and political alliances through action, and to create pressure for political change from many different directions. It's time we made the government react to our actions instead of us reacting to their actions.
As you can see, the AFL has a very ambitious agenda. We are dedicated to political change in Alberta. It is the only answer to our continued crises at the bargaining table and to the generally shabby treatment of working people in the province.
At the same time, we can and will continue to mobilize our brothers and sisters in support of unions in struggle.
I will leave you with an optimistic note. It took Albertans 37 years to get rid of the Socred government. In just 5 years time, the Tories will have been in power for 37 years. I think time is on our side.
EDMONTON - Alberta's health care system could be thrown into chaos if the province's nine regional health authorities are successful in their bid to force nurses into binding arbitration, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"The arbitration process is a stacked deck," says Les Steel. "That's why the health authorities want it. But if they use binding arbitration to ram through a contract that nurses simply can't agree with, then there are going to be serious consequences. How can showing disrespect for front line employees be good for our health care system?"
Steel says that people who are unfamiliar with the arbitration process may think it sounds like a reasonable way to resolve contract disputes - but the truth is something different. In Alberta, arbitration panels are made up of three representatives, one chosen by the employer, one chosen by the employees and a chairman chosen by the government.
"In the case of the nurses, the government is essentially the employer, so they get two of the three seats - hardly a fair balance," says Steel.
"But it gets worse than that," he adds. "Of the 15 or 16 lawyers in the province available to act as arbitration chairs, only two or three who would be trusted by the labour movement to be truly impartial. And you can bet that those arbitrators won't be the ones chosen by government to chair the panel."
Steel says the perception of bias on arbitration panels is so strong that it is extremely rare for unions to voluntarily submit to the process. In fact, as the one-sided nature of awards has become more apparent, the number of arbitrations has dropped from between 15 and 20 a year in the early 80s to only two or three a year in the 90s.
"With a few exceptions, the only unions that accept the arbitration process are the ones forced into it by legislation, like the firefighters and police," says Steel. "UNA has steered clear of the process for more than 20 years - with good reason."
Steel says that the health authorities know all about the pro-employer tilt of most arbitration panels - and he says that's why they've "deliberately sabotaged the bargaining process."
"They've made ridiculous demands and they've refused to compromise," he says "For example, they want the right to force nurses to work permanent night shifts; and they want the right to move nurses from one worksite to another at will. They know they'd never be able to get these things through honest negotiations - that's why they're trying to force UNA into arbitration."
Given these realities, Steel says that it's "dishonest and self-serving" for the health authorities to say that negotiation have failed and that binding arbitration is the only solution.
"Negotiations have failed because they made them fail - because they wanted them to fail," says Steel, adding that the health authorities are probably hoping to use the confusion caused by the Bill 27 process (which basically threw out all contracts in the health sector) to roll back the clock on Alberta nurses.
But Steel says the health authorities should be careful for what they wish for.
"Even if they succeed in using the arbitration process to impose a backward contract on the nurses, they may end up paying a high price," he says.
"At the very least they will poison the work atmosphere within the health care system - to the detriment of both employees and patients. This is the kind of thing that could drive nurses out of the province or into early retirement. And it's certainly not going to help attract new people to work in the Alberta health care system. Any government that really wanted its health care system to work well wouldn't allow this to happen. It's a recipe for disaster."
For more information call:
Les Steel, AFL President @ (780) 483-3021 or (780) 499-4135 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ (780) 483-3021 or (780) 910-1137 (cell)
Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, August 2003 (Oslo, Norway)
Good morning and thank you for the warm welcome.
As you've already heard, my name is Les Steel and I'm president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
For those of you who've never been to Canada, I'd like to start my presentation this morning with a quick geography lesson.
Canada, as you know, is the big, cold country that sits at the top of North America. It stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific in the west and the Arctic Ocean in the North.
Alberta is in the western half of the country. It's where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains.
Alberta is the petroleum capital of Canada. It's home to the Calgary Stampede. And it's where Wayne Gretzky first made his name as a hockey star.
Of course, we're not all Gretzkys. Most Albertans - like most Norwegians - have to work for a living. And that's where the AFL comes in.
Our federation represents 41 Alberta unions and 120,000 unionized workers in both the public and private sectors.
Like unions here in Norway, our first priority has traditionally been to protect and improve working conditions for our members.
But over the past ten years or so, our attention has turned to a much broader fight.
In particular, we've been engaged in a battle to preserve many of the core social programs that previous generations of Canadians fought hard to establish.
So far, our biggest fight has involved our national public health care system, which we call Medicare.
Canadians cherish Medicare. It's one of our proudest achievements - and it's something that many Canadians hold up as a defining characteristic of our country.
But despite the overwhelming support that Medicare consistently receives from the public, for most of the past decade it has been threatened with death by a thousand cuts.
And nowhere in the country has the attack on public health care been more focused and more determined than in Alberta.
Since the election of 1993 which brought the current Conservative government to power in Alberta, our provincial health system has endured unprecedented budget cuts; massive lay-offs and a growing number of attempts to privatize services.
The good news today is that many of the worst cuts have been reversed - thanks in large part to public protests organized by unions and other community groups.
But we're still dealing with a serious shortage of hospital beds and a chronic shortage of trained health care workers.
Even more significantly, our provincial government hasn't retreated when it comes to privatization. Despite widespread public opposition, they've handed over huge swathes of our health care system to the private sector - and they're continuing to chip away at the foundations of everything that's left.
That's why I'm here this morning.
I'm here to talk about our experience with so-called market-based health care reforms. I'm also here to talk about our campaigns to reverse the cuts and stop privatization.
Most importantly, I'm here to share with you a few lessons that we've picked up along the way - lessons that might prove useful in your campaign to protect the public health care here in Norway.
Making comparisons between nations is always a tricky thing - especially when those nations are on different continents, and have different cultures, languages and histories.
Comparison can also be tricky when you're talking about something as complex and dear to our hearts as health care.
But despite the distance and all other things that separate us, I think there are at least two reasons why our experience in Alberta has relevance here in Norway.
The first reason is that, if you think about it, Norway and Alberta actually have a lot in common.
We both know what cold winters are like.
We both have a lot of land and relatively few people.
We both have abundant petroleum resources that have strengthened our economies and given us the ability to pay for high-quality social programs.
And, at least for the moment, we both have tax-financed health systems that guarantee our citizens access to quality care when they need it and regardless of their ability to pay.
So, in many ways, when we compare health care in Alberta with health care in Norway, we are comparing apples with apples, not apples with oranges.
The second, and probably more important, reason why I think our experiences are relevant here in Norway is that they are hardly unique.
The truth is that Canada is not the only country that swallowed the bitter medicine offered by advocates of market-based health care reform.
Neo-liberalism has been a wave rolling across the globe for more than twenty years now.
Like a virus, it started with Margaret Thatcher in Britain in the seventies. Ronald Reagan allowed it to spread to the U.S in the early 80s. And in the late 80s and early 90s it took hold in places like New Zealand and Canada.
In many ways, the fact that the privatization wolf is only knocking on your door now is a testament to your good sense and the strong foundations you've built for your public health system.
When I look back on the past ten years of struggle that we've had in Alberta and compare it to the privatization onslaught that has taken place in other countries since the late 70s, the thing that strikes me is how similar the experiences have been.
Whether it's Canada, Britain or New Zealand, it seems that the privatizers have followed roughly the same three steps to push their agenda.
The first step has always involved fear-mongering. In particular, the privatizers attack the credibility of the public sector and sow doubts about its efficiency, its affordability and its ability to provide quality service.
In Alberta, our government spent years trying to convince people that our public health care system is unsustainable.
Despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, they told Albertans that costs were spiraling out of control. They said health care was swallowing an ever-increasing share of the provincial budget. And they warned that the aging population would bankrupt the system.
As recently as two years ago, our provincial premier was telling every reporter who would listen that the cost of Medicare in Alberta had doubled and that drastic measure needed to be taken to "save the system" from itself.
This kind of fear mongering led naturally to the second step. After manufacturing a crisis and attempting to convince people that a huge problem exists, the market boosters presented the solution - and surprise, surprise, it happened to be the market.
For conservatives, privatization is the cure-all. Markets, they say, will reduce cost, improve efficiency, and increase choice for patients. They even go so far as to say that privatization can help save public health care by "relieving pressure" on the public system.
In Alberta, as in other jurisdictions, the government moved very quickly from bad-mouthing the system to parceling out pieces to the private sector.
The first things to go were the so-called secondary services in hospitals, like the laundry, janitorial and food services.
But our government wasn't content to stop there. They also handed over almost all hospital laboratory service to for-profit companies. And they actively encouraged entrepreneurs to set up private surgical suites to perform things like cataract surgery and private diagnostic imagining services that charged patients between one and three thousand dollars for things like MRI and CT scans.
At the same time all this was happening, our government laid the ground work for more sweeping privatization by introducing legislation that would pave the way for investor-owned hospitals.
In many ways, this piece of legislation - which the government had the nerve to call the Health care Protection Act, or Bill 11 for short - was the straw that broke the camels back. After years of going reluctantly along with the government, Albertans finally started to protest. The Bill was eventually passed, but not before we organized the largest demonstrations in our province's history.
That leads us to the third step. When confronted with large scale public opposition, privatizing governments often start playing games with language.
The point here is for the privatizers to reassure the public and hide their true intentions.
This is where we're at right now in Alberta. Our government now says that it was misunderstood. They say they never really wanted to privatize health care. Instead they say they've merely been looking for alternative funding mechanisms. Or they say all they want to do is build partnerships with the private sector to deliver services within the public system.
The problem with all of this is that it's just new wrapping on the same old package. Public-private partnerships may not be quite the same thing as the wholesale privatization that exists in the United States - but it's still privatization.
So far, we in Alberta have had some successes and we've had some failures when it comes to dealing with our government's privatizing agenda in health care. As I mentioned earlier, many of the deepest spending cuts to our public system have been reversed, largely as the result of the many protests organized by unions and our partners in the community.
After years of rapid decline, we are now spending as much on a per capita basis on health care was we did in 1993. It may not sound like much, but from our perspective, that's a step in the right direction.
We've also succeeded in rolling back some privatization initiatives. For example, after running a high-profile public campaign exposing how private MRI clinics were blocking access to quick diagnosis for seriously ill Albertans, the government agreed to buy more MRI machines and run them within the public system. They even agreed to reimburse hundreds of people for the MRI and CT scans they had to pay for in the private system.
Another success we've had has more to do with what hasn't happened than what has. Two years ago, the Alberta government released a long-awaited study called the Mazankowski report which outlined plans for taking privatization in health care to the next level. In particular, it called for caps on the amount of public insurance people could have - and it opened the door for the introduction of American-style private health insurance.
The good news is that the government has not moved towards implementing either of these recommendations. In fact, even though the Mazankowski report was billed as the government's blueprint for health reform in the 21st century, almost none of it major suggestions have been acted upon.
The reasons for this are mainly political. The government has simply failed to convince Albertans to that further privatization is either prudent or desirable.
So what can you here in Norway learn from our experience in Alberta?
I think there are three lessons.
The first is don't give up without a fight.
In many ways, the deck was stacked against us in Alberta.
Historically, ours has been the most conservative province in the Canada. And Albertans like to think of themselves as free enterprisers - so you might think they would all be won over by free market argument.
But what we discovered is that even conservative voters can be persuaded of the benefits of public health care and the pitfalls of privatization. But it doesn't happen overnight - and it doesn't happen without effort and planning.
The second lesson that we learned is that there is no stronger weapon than the truth.
The advocates of privatization can sound pretty slick when they talk about the magic of competition and incentives.
And they can be persuasive when they list all the supposed weaknesses of the public system.
But private health care has a track record - and it's not a particularly impressive one.
So every time they ran down the public system and extolled the theoretical virtues of privatization, we answered back with facts.
When they implied that costs in the public sector were spiraling out of control, we showed that they we in fact stable.
When they said the private sector was cheaper and more efficient we presented evidence from around the world that it was more expensive and less efficient.
When they argued that privatization would improve access for patients, we demonstrated from experience that the opposite was true.
The good news for those of us who believe in public health care is that the verdict on privatization is in. It's been tried and it's failed. Those are the facts.
In many ways, the arguments in favour of privatization in health care are like the arguments used by the U.S. government to justify war in Iraq - they have the ring of truth, but once you scratch the surface, they have no substance.
The bottom line is that both public and private health care have a track record - but don't assume that everyone know it. As advocates of public health care it's up to us to put the good news on the table. If we do, the facts we speak for themselves.
The third and final lesson that can be taken from the Alberta experience is to involve the broader community.
Unions in our province made a decision at the beginning of our campaign to swallow our organizational pride and work in coalition with churches, seniors citizens, students and other groups in the community.
It was an important decision for us, because by ourselves, the government could afford to ignore us. But they couldn't completely ignore the other in our coalition.
This will be true here in Norway. The bigger tent you build the more power you will have politically.
Having said all that I'd like to conclude today by saying how optimistic I am about the prospects to preserving public health care in your country.
Conservatives may control your parliament today - and they may be toying with some free market notions. But it's going to be hard for them to make the case for privatization.
We now have more than 25 years of experience from around the world showing that privatized health care actually costs more and delivers less.
We're also now living in a post Enron world. Given all the examples of corporate wrong-doing that have come to light over the past few years, it's going to be harder than ever to convince people that it make sense to entrust our health to the private sector.
Here in Norway you also have the advantage of prosperity. Thanks to your oil reserves - which, by the way you've managed much better than ours in Alberta - your conservatives cannot argue that public debt is a problem and they cannot realistically claim that your health system is unsustainable.
From where I stand, the real danger for Norway may be complacency. You have a strong tradition of social responsibility; you have all the facts on your side and you have the resources to afford high quality health services. But don't under-estimate the privatizers - they have a product to sell and they can make it sound like the answer to all your problems.
The trick for you is to prick the private balloon and let the hot air out. You have to shine a bright light into the dark corners of any and all private health care proposals. And you have to expose these proposals for what they really are - self-interested sales pitches.
Based on what I've seen at this conference so far, I'm confident you will be up to the challenge.
Readers of Labour News will remember that, in our last issue, we reported on the scandal at the union-owned insurance company Ullico. The company, which was set up to provide insurance coverage for union members, invested heavily in Global Crossing, a giant telecommunications firm riding the dotcom wave of the late 1990s. Some directors of Ullico, all of whom were union leaders, were able to buy Ullico shares at a price set by the board. When the company's investment in Global Crossing soared in value, the value of these shares also increased.
When the dotcom bubble burst, however, Global Crossing went into the tank, and it was clear that the value of Ullico shares was also about to fall. At that point, the same directors sold their shares back to Ullico, netting handsome profits for themselves and passing the losses on to the union pension funds that owned the company.
This was exactly the kind of corporate shenanigans that unions consistently criticize, and the scandal caused serious damage to the union movement. Our Labour News editorial argued that unions had to insist on higher standards of behaviour from labour leaders.
Fortunately, that's exactly what happened. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, backed up by Laborers Union President Terence M. O'Sullivan, won the support of the union pension plans, and used that support to force the resignation of CEO Robert Georgine. They also put the directors who profited from the share trades on notice that they will be expected to return those profits.
The union movement owes a debt of thanks to Sweeney, and to the trade unionists who supported him in this fight. Business Week called their decisive action "an example Corporate America should heed." Labour News doubts very much that Corporate America will do so, but we're pleased to report that Labour is keeping its own house in order.
There is a lesson for the future in all this: we can't always rely on the personal integrity of individual union leaders like Sweeney to solve these problems. Union-run pension and benefit funds must always be subject to rigorous oversight, and the directors of these funds held to a very high standard of conduct.
The Ullico story has a happy ending, and the labour movement can be proud of the outcome - we just can't be smug about it.
Tom Fuller, AFL Executive Staff
The Tories say the Bill is little more than housekeeping - that it's simply designed to streamline administration as the province moves from 17 regional health authorities to seven.
Most mainstream media sources have bought into this version of the story. Fewer complicated union contracts? Less red tape? Great! But the reality of Bill 27 is much more sinister than the fairy tale being told by the government. Just consider what Bill 27 actually does:
- It discards in one stroke dozens of freely-negotiated contracts covering thousands of health care workers.
- It transforms the Labour Relations Board from and impartial "referee" in labour matters into an instrument for imposing inferior agreements.
- And, it opens for door for sweeping changes to the wages and working conditions of all Alberta health care workers.
Looking at the details of Bill 27, it becomes clear that this isn't really about streamlining" or reducing red tape - it's about tearing up agreements, weakening unions and trying to squeeze more out of health care workers for less.
Some Albertans might shrug and say "So what? Why should I care about what happens to health care workers and their contracts?"
Two responses to these questions come to mind. First, all Albertans should be concerned whenever the government uses its legislative power to bully its citizens and renege on agreements.
How would business people who supply services to the government feel if the provincial cabinet suddenly tore up contracts with them and said "we're going to pay you less"? That's exactly what's happening to health care workers under Bill 27.
Second, and more importantly, Albertans should be concerned and angry about Bill 27 because of the impact it will almost certainly have on patient care.
For years now, the Klein government has been chipping away at the foundations of our health care system. Budget cuts, staff shortages, privatization - we're all familiar with the what's been going on.
Through it all, the only thing that has kept the system together is the hard-work and dedication of health care workers. They've gone the extra mile - and stretched themselves thin - to maintain high quality care.
And now, what are these workers going to get in return for their commitment? Lower wages. Longer hours. Fewer full-time jobs. More night shifts. Reduced benefits. Less time with their families.
If the government thinks that attacking health care workers will somehow improve the health system, they are sadly mistaken. Sure, they may save a few dollars. But gutting contracts will also lead to lower morale, higher turn-over, and reduced capacity to attract and retain skilled workers.
Unfortunately, it seems that what we have here is a wealthy (and mean-spirited) government that wants to get health care on the cheap - and they plan to do it by putting the screws to people on the front lines.
We think our health care workers deserve better. So do Alberta patients.
Gil McGowan, AFL Executive Staff
Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, April 2003
As trade unionists we are currently living through a period that can best be described as schizophrenic.
It's a time of big challenges - some of the most serious we've ever faced. But, on the other hand, I believe it's also a time of new hope and new opportunities.
This afternoon, I'd like to start with the positives & and so I'll make a positive statement.
I'm convinced that we're starting to see the first tell-tale signs that the long winter of knee-jerk, business-first politics that has dominated our country since the days of Brian Mulroney may finally be coming to an end.
This may seem like a surprising claim to make - especially here in Alberta. And especially considering all the talk we've been hearing lately from our provincial government about taking away the right to strike from health care workers, imposing agreements and fining unions millions of dollars.
There is no doubt that, in the halls of power, things are as bad as they've ever been - maybe worse.
But on the ground - in communities, in homes, in coffee shops - attitudes are changing.
After Enron and Worldcom and all the other corporate scandals that have come to light over the past year, people are no longer so willing to put blind faith in the business community
Ordinary Canadians are also becoming more and more skeptical of the corporate agenda that our governments have been pursuing for the past fifteen years.
Yes, our leaders are still talking about budget cuts, privatization, wage roll-backs, down-sizing, trade deals and tax cuts for the well-off. And, yes, here in Alberta, the government seems to be rev-ing up for a war on unions.
But poll after poll tells us that ordinary Canadians are on a different page.
Joe and Jane Canadian no longer agree with the National Post and the Fraser Institute that cutting the debt and cutting taxes are the big issues. And they don't agree with the Ralph Klein's of the world who argue that unions are the root of all evil.
What people are really concerned about are things that affect their pocketbook; things that affect their communities; and things that affect their families.
In fact, Canadians are now starting to focus on many of the things that we in the labour movement have been talking about for years: things like health care; education; jobs; and the environment.
Recent polls have also shown some interesting shifts in the political landscape.
A few years ago the Reform party and then the Canadian Alliance were driving the agenda in this country. They weren't in government, but for most of the 90s they succeeded in moving the political centre of gravity in this country far to the right.
But today, according to the latest EKOS poll, the Alliance has slipped to 10 percent of popular support - down from more than 25 percent less than a year ago.
At the same time, the NDP has jumped to nearly 18 percent - from just nine percent during the last election.
Even here in Alberta - where we've basically had one-party rule for more than six decades - support for the Conservative party has notched down slightly for the first time in years.
By themselves, none of these signs can be described as revolutionary. But taken together, the signs suggest that something is going on - something is changing under the surface.
It's like the first warm day after a long winter. The snow still covers everything - but there is a steady "drip, drip, drip" that tells us that things are going to change - that the snow will be gone soon - and that the cold will soon be replaced by something more hospitable.
For those of us in the labour movement who have endured nearly twenty years of anti-union, neo-conservative winter - a spring thaw would certainly be welcome.
And that's exactly what seems to be happening. The pendulum is swinging. And this time it looks like it's swinging with us - not into us.
That's the good news. But as I said off the top, the world we in live today is not all roses.
On the negative side of the ledger, we face a number of serious challenges - some more frightening and more dangerous for our members than anything we've ever faced before.
How bad is it? To be honest, there's a whole shopping list of concerns.
Here in Alberta, the latest attack on workers and workers rights comes in the form of Bill 27 - a bill to amend the Alberta Labour Code.
We've all been talking about this Bill - but it's important to be clear about what is being proposed:
Bill 27 strips the right to strike from thousands of people working in community health care. It attacks the right of ALL health care workers to choose their own union. It denies workers access to severance pay-outs if their jobs are contracted out. It removes decision-making power from impartial tribunals like the Labour Relations Board and hand it over to the provincial cabinet And it sets up a process that will almost certainly give regional health authorities the power to impose inferior agreements on health care workers. From our perspective at the AFL, Bill 27 is just the first shot in what may turn into a war on workers waged by the Alberta government against unions in this province.
Within the next few months, we expect that teachers will also be targeted.
In an effort to weaken the ATA, this government will introduce a new law splitting ATA's union and professional functions.
And then there will be a law taking away their right to strike.
The government will use the same excuses they're using now with health care workers. They'll say that it's about protecting the public. They'll say it's about maintaining essential services.
But we all know what this is really all about. It's about power. It's about control. And it's about slapping down and punishing groups who dare to stand up for themselves.
The truth is that, in many ways, unions are the real opposition in this province.
The nurses stood up and won 22 percent for their members. The teachers stood up and won 14 percent. And it was CUPE and the hospital workers in Calgary who stood up seven years ago and stopped the Klein government from implementing the last of its planned cuts in health care.
Aside from labour, no other group in this province has dared to defy the Tories. No other group has gone toe-to-toe with them. And no other group has made them blink.
That's why unions are being targeted in Bill 27. And it's why we're all in for a fight over the next year.
We at the AFL will be working with affiliates and labour councils to help coordinate the fightback. In fact, the AFL and seven unions representing health care workers have already launched an international challenge of Bill 27 under NAFTA.
We're also considering legal action in the courts here in Alberta. And we're working on a protocol that will see all of our union work together in fighting this backward piece of legislation.
The government may think they can ram this law through under the cover of the war in Iraq. They may think they can ram it through without public scrutiny and without public protest.
But today I have a message for them. We will not go quietly. We will not roll over. And will not stand idly by while the rights of our members are trampled!
I wish I could say that the bad news for workers in this province stops with Bill 27. But it doesn't.
Here in Alberta, we have a government that is literally floating on money - but they still won't spend it on our schools or on other services that really matter to people.
Instead, they want to hand our tax dollars over to investors in the private-sector by increasing the number of so-called public-private-partnerships. The record on P3s is clear - wherever they've been tried, they've failed. But this government is ignoring the evidence and they're pushing forward - even though they know P3s will cost more, delivery less and put good jobs at risk.
P3s and Bill 27 are just two items on the list of challenges we're facing.
I could add more: like a war in the Middle East that almost nobody in this world wants; like a federal government that likes to portray itself as progressive, but which has cut services to a level we haven't seen since the '50s; or like the threat posed to working people by ill-conceived international trade agreements.
The list goes on - but the point is: we have our work cut out for us.
The irony in all this is that - just as the public seems to be getting tired of the right-wing crowd - conservative governments here Alberta and across the country seem to be getting bolder. And they're getting meaner.
The big question now is how do we respond to the challenges I've just talked about - and how do we capitalize on the opportunities that come with a more progressive shift in public opinion?
One option would be to do nothing - or to do the same things we've always done.
Maybe if we simply sit tight and wait, the pendulum will swing back our way.
But then again - if all we do is wait, the pendulum may not swing at all; or it might not swing as far as we'd like it to; or might swing right past us.
As you might have guessed, we at the AFL have come to the conclusion that the labour movement has to take a more active approach.
That's one of the reasons I'm so pleased to speak at gatherings like this one. We want to spread the gospel of activism - and we want to share our ideas and experiences about what we think will work to make the labour movement stronger.
For us, it all starts with a clear vision of the role of unions.
We firmly believe that the labour movement is one of the few institutions in society that is big enough and strong enough to stand up to the corporate and political powers-that-be.
We also believe that the labour movement has an obligation to use its size, its power and its resources to not only help our own members - but also to go to bat for families, for the unorganized and for the broader communities in which we all live.
When it comes specific solutions and strategies, we don't pretend to have all the answers. But over the past seven or eight years, all of us in the Alberta labour movement have been kicked around a lot.
In the process, we've suffered a few defeats; we've enjoyed a few victories - and we've learned quite a few lessons.
Before I wrap up this afternoon, I just want to touch on the three of the most important lessons I think we've learned - lessons that we can all learn from.
First - we've learned that we can't do it alone.
Whether we're talking about an individual strike or a province-wide campaign against cutbacks, we've learned that we get better results when we have allies - especially allies from outside the labour movement.
About a year ago, Ipso-Reid released a poll that helped illustrate why building coalitions is so important.
Basically, the survey asked Canadians to rate different groups in terms of trust. Not surprisingly, politicians were at the bottom of the barrel. But union spokespeople and union leaders weren't far behind.
We may not like to admit it - but unions have a serious image problem - and a serious credibility problem. Too often we're dismissed as self-interested and out to feather our own nests.
That's why we at the AFL have made a point of building coalitions with organizations outside the labour movement - organizations that share our concerns and our priorities.
Community groups, seniors groups, student groups, religious groups, women's groups, environmental groups, health care advocacy groups, immigrant groups, anti-poverty advocates, progressive academics.
You name it - we need to forge ties and build bridges with all these groups.
And it's not just a crass attempt to steal their credibility. It's about sharing resources, sharing people power, sharing networks, sharing ideas - and working together for change.
The second lesson we've learned is that we have to do a better job of cooperating within the labour movement itself. Too often, we get trapped in silos. We keep our heads down and do our work with our own members. But the result is that we end up not seeing the forest for the trees. We also often end up recreating the wheel.
Our experience fighting Bill 11 three years ago proved this point.
The Fed could have gone off and organized its own campaign. The nurses' and CUPE and the health sciences association could each have gone off in their own directions.
But instead, we worked together as part of a broader coalition - the Friends of Medicare coalition.
The result was that, by pooling our money and our people, we were able to run a bigger, smarter and more effective campaign than we ever would have been able to pull off individually.
Over the past year, we've started to apply this logic to organizing the unorganized. In partnership with the two other prairie provinces, we're talking about establishing a central organizing school. We're even talking about joint organizing drives. So instead of competing with each other, instead of working against each other - we're working together.
That's what we mean when we talk about cooperation between unions. We think solidarity should be more than a word we sing in a song every few years at conventions.
The third and final lesson that I'd like to highlight today is that we need to get over the fear of trying new things.
When the Alberta government first started slashing in 1993, we did all the usual things. We wrote leaflets that almost no one read. We organized a few rallies that only a few hundred people attended. We sent out a few harshly worded press releases. We even circulated a petition and started a postcard campaign.
The problem was that we did exactly what Ralph Klein expected us to do - and he didn't give a crap. As long it was just the usual suspects on the Legislature steps he knew he could get away with ignoring us.
The good news is that we've finally snapped out of it. We're starting to do things more creatively and more professionally.
We've borrowed from the corporate world by using TV ads, polling and direct mail campaigns.
We've borrowed from Hollywood by rounding up real life stories of people to tell their stories to the media.
And just last month, we went back to old-style person-to-person organizing.
Through the Friends of Medicare coalition, we canvassed more than 20,000 people in Federal Health Minister Anne McLellan's Edmonton riding - and we got more than five thousand of them to sign a card saying they might not vote for her in the next election if she doesn't do something to stop for-profit delivery of health services.
The point of all this is not to illustrate how brilliant we are at the AFL. If we were really that brilliant, we wouldn't still be dealing with Ralph as Premier three elections later.
What I am trying to say is that unions can make change - even in the most inhospitable climates. We can make gains for our members and we can defend and even advance our broader social agenda.
We can do all these things by building bridges to other groups. We can do it by working together within the labour movement. And we can do it by trying new things, by working better and working smarter.
In the end, I'm convinced that we can benefit from the spring thaw that is driving Canadians away from the business-first crowd. And I'm convinced that we can beat back the attacks that are threatening our unions and our members.
The pendulum is swinging our way. If we're prepared, if we're smart, if we're creative I know we can grab on make some real headway on the issue that matter most to all of us.
As usual, CUPE will be at the forefront of all our efforts. I look forward to working with you and standing together with you in our fight to build a better Alberta.
Good luck in your deliberations. Solidarity!
EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is responding angrily to regulations released yesterday that flesh-out the provincial government's controversial new labour law, Bill 27.
The regulations "trample on the rights of health care workers and remove all pretence that the government is an impartial third party when it comes to labour relations in this province," says AFL President Les Steel.
"With these new rules, the government has regulated away the right of workers to have the union of their choice," he says. "It has regulated out of existence freely-negotiated legal contracts. It strips the democratic right-to-strike from community health workers without a shred of justification. And, it is forcing unions to reorganize into dysfunctional bargaining units."
Steel says there are many other problems with the Regulation aside from its attack on the democratic rights of workers.
"The government is basically hijacking the Alberta Labour Relations Board - which is supposed to be an impartial, third-party tribunal - and is using it as an instrument to ram these changes through," says Steel.
"There is no consideration about whether the Board has the expertise or resources to make the changes, or if this role is even appropriate for a tri-partite, neutral body."
Steel says that the LRB is already under-staffed and hopelessly behind in rendering decisions on other labour matters - so these new burdens may derail the board's work in other sectors of the economy and with other groups of workers.
Steel predicts that putting the new Bill 27 regulations into practice will create a nightmare of litigation and flawed, unmanageable administrative systems. Further, he is sure that labour relations in health care - already at a dangerously low level - will deteriorate badly during implementation of the regulations.
"I think the government has deliberately thrown the entire health care system into chaos," says Steel. "They're trying to use this 'reorganization' as a cover to rollback the wage gains of health care workers and to punish health care unions."
"It's ironic", concludes Steel, "that this government, which refuses to regulate our electric and gas utilities to help Albertans, is all to willing to over-regulate health care at the expense of the basic rights of healthcare workers."
Health care workers themselves will protest Bill 27 and its attached regulations at several worksite information pickets this afternoon. Noon-hour information pickets will be staged at both the Grey Nuns hospital in South Edmonton and the Misericordia hospital in West Edmonton.
At the Grey Nuns event, which Steel plans to attend, nurses will attach their contracts to black helium balloons and "send them to heaven." At the Misericordia event, which will be attended by AFL Secretary Treasurer Kerry Barrett, health care workers will lay wreaths to mark the "death of their rights and their contracts."
For more information call:
Les Steel, AFL President @ 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-499-4135 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ 780-483-3021 (wk)
EDMONTON - By ramming Bill 27 through the Legislature, the Alberta government has abandoned all pretence that it is an impartial third party when it comes to labour relations in the province, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"The employers in the health care sector asked the government for a free hand to deal with their workers, and thats exactly what this new law gives them," says AFL President Les Steel.
"The door is now open for an all out assault on health care workers and their contracts. We've already seen the attack ads against nurses being run by the regional health authorities. Bill 27 is the next piece in the puzzle."
The government has tried to downplay the significance of Bill 27 by arguing that it is merely an attempt to streamline administration as the province moves to fewer regional health authorities. But the AFL says it is about much more than that.
"This law strips the right-to-strike from thousands of community health care workers; it undermines the right of health care workers to choose their own unions; and it removes power over labour relations from impartial tribunals like the Alberta Labour Relations Board and hands it to the provincial cabinet," says Steel.
"Basically what they've done is rigged the game. They've stacked the deck and tipped the playing field. They're using the law to bludgeon health care workers and weaken their power at the bargaining table."
Steel says the government may feel smug now that they've used their overwhelming majority to push this blatantly anti-labour piece of legislation through. But he says there will be a price to be paid.
"This government pays lip service to the importance of health care workers," says Steel. "They say they want to attract and retain more people. But at the same time they're stabbing these workers in the back. How are we supposed to attract health workers to this province and maintain a motivated workforce when the government is so eager to gut their contracts?"
Steel also thinks the government has another thing coming if they think they can enforce labour peace by passing draconian laws.
"They may think they can force health workers into submission with strike bans and threats of huge fines," he says. "But this isn't a strategy for labour peace; it's a recipe for confrontation. Unions in this province will not stand idly while our members' rights and contracts are stripped."
For more information call:
Les Steel, AFL President (780) 483-3021 (wk) / (780) 499-4135 (cell)
- or -
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications (780) 483-3021 (wk) / (780) 910-1137 (cell)