Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, October 28, 2005
Hello and welcome.
As many of you know, my name is Gil McGowan, and I'm president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
I'd like to begin this afternoon by thanking all of you for taking the time to attend this reception.
I know we have a jammed packed agenda and every spare minute is precious; so we appreciate you making the effort to squeeze us in.
I'd particularly like to welcome all the delegates from the government and business communities.
Some people joke that we come here first for the food and the scenery and only second for the discussion.
But for me, there simply aren't enough opportunities for dialog between our two solitudes.
I sincerely believe that by meeting like this and getting to know each other face-to-face we can more effectively make strides towards that elusive goal of workplace harmony.
Of course, harmony is not the word that many would use to describe what's going on in Alberta today.
And that's why I've arranged to have this talk this afternoon.
In many ways, what we're seeing around the province right now is a story of stark contrasts.
On one hand, here in Alberta in 2005, we have it all.
Our economy is literally floating on a sea of oil dollars. Demand for what we produce is strong and getting stronger. Profits are up, unemployment is down and our provincial treasury is bursting at the seams. It's hard to imagine how our economic prospects could be brighter.
During times like these, Albertans should be comfortable and confident. We should be looking to the future with hope. We should be dreaming big. We should building schools and hospitals. We should not only be maintaining the social programs we have, we should be enhancing them.
Many around us are indeed living the Alberta dream. But for many others, it's a different story.
Instead of comfort and confidence we get picket lines. And instead of enhancing the programs we have, we get 12-year-olds at work and Premier's Klein's Third Way for private health care.
That's the face of the other Alberta; and it's the face that many of our members are struggling to deal with today.
Military metaphors are often over-used by leaders & but it's hard for those of us in the labour community not to describe what's been happening over the last six months as a war.
It's a war with many fronts.
Telus. CBC. Lakeside. Finning. Casino Calgary.
Never before in Alberta history have so many workers, from so many different unions and so many different sectors of the economy been on the picket line at the same time.
It would be one thing if all these strikes were simply about wages; about workers trying to get a bigger piece of Alberta's expanding economic pie.
But they're not. Each one of these labour disputes are about much more fundamental issues.
In the case of both Telus and Finning, for example, it's about contracting out and job security.
In both cases we have companies that are hugely successful. Telus dominates the telecommunications market in western Canada. And Finning is the leading supplier of heavy equipment to Alberta's booming oil industry. These are companies that measure their profits, not in millions, not in tens of millions, but in hundreds of millions.
And yet, despite their market dominance and despite their profits, many of the people working at these companies feel insecure.
And they feel insecure with good reason: Telus has laid off thousands and they've been dipping their toe in pool of foreign outsourcing. And Finning has already contracted out or spun off whole divisions at the expense of hundreds of jobs.
So the fight at Finning and Telus and the CBC has not been about nickels and dimes: it has been about fighting for careers rather than contracts; and about stopping the disappearance of stable, family-sustaining jobs.
The strike at Lakeside Packers in Brooks and Casino Calgary are also about bedrock issues of fairness.
Just last weekend I spoke with a women on the Casino Calgary picket line who has worked as a dealer at the Casino for 25 years. When she started in 1980, she made $7.00 and hour. Today, 25 years later, she makes $7.80 and hour. 80 cents in 25 years.
To make matters worse, while I was standing there, the casino owner's son pulled up in his Hummer and sneered at the picketers.
It was one of those moments of clarity. Here, on one hand was a group of struggling minimum wage workers, and there, on the other hand, was some driving a vehicle that costs more than any of the workers could make in ten years.
It's a similar situation in Brooks.
You've already heard from the Lakeside workers themselves last night, so I won't belabour the point. But I'll say this.
This is a strike about the most basic issues. It's about right most Albertans take for granted: like the right to go to the bathroom when you need to; like the right to see a doctor when you're injured; like the right to actually get paid for all the time you work.
To illustrate how bad things are there, I'll tell you two quick stories.
First, one of the strikers told me about an incident when one of the beef carcasses, weighing hundreds of pounds, fell off the assembly line on top of a worker. The managers rushed in quickly: but not to help the injured worker. They were there to pick up the meat.
The second, story I'll tell you is about a practice that sounds like it comes right out of some south Asian sweat shop. It's called gang time and it happens every day at Lakeside. Basically what happens is that Lakeside stops paying people when they stop slaughtering cattle.
The only problem is that it's an assembly line operation, so it takes some time for the last animal to make it's way from the killing floor to the end of the line. And for all that time, as much as an hour at the end of each shift, the workers along the line are not getting paid.
Lakeside's parent company Tyson Foods has been brought up on charges and convicted of this practice in the states. But it's also happening here.
This is why some of the workers talk about how working at Lakeside is like slavery. Many of them have come from desperate war-torn countries & they come to Canada full of hope and this is how they are greeted.
Now, I don't want to paint all of Alberta business with the same brush. The truth is that the vast majority of employers in the province are good employers and the vast majority of business people in the province are people of good conscience.
But, in the spirit of openness, I have to tell you, when we in the labour movement look at what's going on, we come away feeling deeply troubled.
We're fighting for job security during strong economic times when insecurity should be the last thing on our minds.
And we're fighting battles for basic fairness and respect that most people thought were won a generation ago.
As president of the AFL, I'm often asked: what's going on? And why is all of this happening now.
In nutshell, I think it's a problem of limits, or more precisely, the lack of limits.
Think of it this way. Ours is an individualistic society, where we are generally free to choose how we live our lives and that's a good thing.
But even in this free society we have limits, we have boundaries.
Some of them are legally codified: you can't steal, you can't speed, you can't break into your neighbour's house and help your self to his new plasma TV. But some of our boundaries are strictly social. For example, it may not be illegal to make a pass at your best friend's wife, but generally speaking, we know it's something we shouldn't do.
In the same vein, here in Alberta - when it comes to the way employers deal with their workers - I would make the argument that there is a problem with limits. Specifically, I think there is a problem with both the codified rules and the less formal cultural and social limits that put boundaries on what is acceptable and what isn't.
On the legal side, we have a weak labour code that makes it hard for unions to organize and bargain and which fails to give our labour board the powers that other provincial labour boards have to promote fair bargaining and discourage unfair practices.
We also have a weak employment standards system that sometimes sounds good on paper but is not backed up with an effective enforcement mechanism.
These weak laws open the door for some businesses to behave badly, and, as we seen, some of them do exactly that.
On the social side, we also have a business culture that too often says "anything goes."
We all know that some companies are behaving badly. But too often our leaders in other business and government circles turn the other way.
As someone once said to on the picket line in Brooks: It's like someone is getting beaten up in the alley and instead of helping, people close the blinds and turn up the stereo."
That's what happens when you don't have appropriate limits. In the broader society, when limits break down, we end up with people behaving badly; maybe not everybody, but some people.
In the same way, without appropriate limits in the business world, some businesses cross over the line of what's acceptable.
In nutshell, that's what I think explains the explosion of labour unrest in the province this year. It's a story of weak limits. And it's a story about corporations behaving badly.
The thing about weak limits is that they are really in no ones best interests. Our members don't want to be on the picket line. It's costly, it's disruptive and, especially when it comes to things like the situation in Brooks, it gives the entire Alberta business community a black eye.
So I have a modest proposal. I would like to see the labour movement and the responsible majority of the business community work together at promoting a package of more appropriate labour standards.
We're not asking for the moon.
On the legal side, what we need is first contract arbitration, so that employers can't simply ignore the democratically expressed will of their employees.
Dozens of strikes were avoided in other provinces last year because of first contract arbitration. If we had it here, there would be no strike at Brooks. The time for first contract arbitration in Alberta has come.
We also think that the Labour Board needs some of the powers that were stripped from it in 1988. In particular, we think they need the big stick of automatic certification. Charges of bad faith bargaining mean nothing if there is no effective deterrent.
When it comes to employment standards, we could go on all day. But at the very least, we need a more aggressive approach to enforcement. Giving employment standards officers the power to issue tickets, as opposed to always having to go through the courts would be an important first step.
On the social side, we'd like to see is leadership from government and the business community & we need to identify standards of what's acceptable and what's not.
We talk about promoting best practices - that's great - but I think we should also be talking about identifying and actively discouraging worst practices.
So, when some corporation behaves badly - when something dark slithers out from under a rock - we don't want them to be greeted by silence. Instead we want them to be greeted by the law, and the full blown and actively expressed disapproval of not only the labour movment and civil society, but also the Alberta corporate community.
Finally, on the subject of contracting out and job security, which is at the heart of so many of our disputes, we'd like to see some movement from the business community.
Providing employees with decent working conditions and some measure of job security should not be seen as a straight jacket that undermines profit, but as a cost of doing business.
To conclude, I'd just like to remind you of what we all know. We are living through a period of great prosperity. We can make the argument that Alberta today is one of the most prosperous jurisdictions, not just in Canada, but the entire world.
But, and here's the really important point: the only real way that most ordinary Albertans share in the Alberta Advantage is through their jobs and the wages they earn. If those wages are stagnant or declining, if those jobs are insecure, then those people are not sharing in the Alberta Advantage.
And the implications are serious; if our companies in Alberta can't provide some measure of security; if careers are really being replaced by contracts, if job security has become a quaint notion from the past, then where does that leave us?
Without being too melodramatic, I think that what's at stake is nothing less that the future of our middle class.
If even here in Alberta the Wealthy people don't have security, can't take mortgages, can't save for kids education, then we really have a problem.
It's not enough to think, some one else will provide the good jobs; if we all think that the next guy is doing it, one day we'll wake up and wonder where the middle class went.
The fact that so many people are not being treated better, the fact that we're allowing some corporations to behave badly even during a time of unprecedented prosperity, is a black mark on Alberta.
I think we can do better. Given prosperity, I know we can do better. Maybe, by working together, we can get the ball rolling.