EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour is predicting a year of increased labour unrest as low unemployment and healthy economic growth create conditions that will produce substantial wage increase demands.
"Both public and private employers are pointing to the overall economic recession in Canada as the reason why workers in Alberta will, once again, be asked to accept little or no wage and benefit increases in the upcoming year," said Alberta Federation of Labour President Les Steel.
But this argument will make little sense to Albertans, who can see that Alberta is in good financial shape, according to Steel. "Let's face it, when you live in the province with the lowest unemployment rate (4.5%) and the strongest economic growth rate in Canada, you expect to get a fair share of that prosperity as a worker," he said.
The Alberta government itself predicts growth of better than 3% per year over the next three years - and that estimate is well in line with economic forecasts by the TD Bank Financial Group (2.8% in 2002; 3.3% in 2003; 3.5% in 2004) and the Bank of Montreal (3.5% in 2002; 4.5% in 2003).
Another spur to increased wage demands by Albertans is that fact that the cost of living has increased by 22.4 % since 1992. Along with Manitoba, this represents the highest inflation rate in Canada during that period.
"With an increased cost-of-living, workers need to make at least equivalent wage gains just to keep even," said Steel.
Teachers bargaining will establish labour relations climate
The current bargaining between the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) and the province (through the School Boards) will, according to Steel, set the tone for bargaining over the next year.
"The teachers are more than justified in their bargaining position," said Steel. "They deserve a wage increase at least as large as that provided to provincial employees (roughly 15 - 18%), but the government has tried to limit them to 6% over two years - less than the likely inflation rate."
Steel suspects that the government is deliberately trying to provoke a confrontation with the ATA. "If the government is forcing a province-wide teachers' strike with the idea that they will be able to force teachers back to work with an inferior settlement, or to break up the ATA, they had better rethink their strategies," said Steel. "The labour movement will mobilize its members and their families behind the teachers," said Steel.
"We believe that the teachers are the ones who have the best interests of public education and of our children at heart, and we strongly believe that teachers' right to free collective bargaining is worth protecting."
"It will be up to the government to decide if they want to create a more militant, confrontational labour relations climate by forcing a confrontation with teachers," added Steel, "because the teachers' negotiations will set the tone for bargaining in Alberta in 2002."
Union membership up in Alberta despite unfriendly labour laws
Despite a rapidly growing workforce and labour laws which fail to protect workers rights to organize and bargain collectively, more and more Alberta workers are joining unions.
"The unionization rate in Alberta increased from 21.1% in 2000 to 22.5% in 2002," observed Steel. This shows that not only are unions still relevant in Alberta - they are desired by more and more workers."
This is despite labour laws which allow employers to evade legitimate efforts by Albertans to organize unions and to bargain collectively.
"The Minister responsible for labour is well aware of our criticisms of Alberta labour laws," said Steel. "We will be making the case for more enlightened laws to the Minister during the review of labour laws scheduled for 2002."
Nurses vote to join growing Alberta Federation of Labour
Another indication of the increasing importance of the labour movement in Alberta is the growth of the AFL - the central voice of labour in the province. Despite the withdrawal of the largest union in the province, AUPE, membership in the AFL is likely to be higher than it was last year.
"If the United Nurses of Alberta ratify their convention's decision to bring their 20,000 members in to the Federation, the AFL will be larger than ever," said Steel.
"That's because more and more unions are seeing the essential need for mobilizing mutual support and for a united voice to articulate labour's position on key current issues."
More struggles in the health care field expected
One of the key issues labour expects to be organizing around in 2002 will be the next attempts by the Klein government to introduce further privatization of health care following release of the Mazankowski Commission report.
"We will oppose the expected government efforts to transfer health care costs to individual Albertans," said Steel.
"Make no mistake, unions will take any increased health care costs to their bargaining tables - so our members will not suffer. But it is the unorganized workers who will bear the brunt of this downloading of costs onto private citizens - and we will act to defend their interests, too."
For further information, contact:
Les Steel, AFL President @ (780) 483-3021 (wk) / (780) 499-4135 (cell)