Liberals must resist pressure from business and Reform Party to recklessly slash taxes

EDMONTON - Members of the federal government are allowing themselves to be unduly swayed by pressure from the Reform Party and other advocates of radical tax cuts - and ordinary Canadians will pay the price, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "Finance Minister Paul Martin tells us that there needs to be a broad public debate among Canadians about what should be done with budgetary surpluses," says Cormack. "But based on his remarks yesterday, it appears that the debate is already over - and Preston Manning and the National Post won." Cormack's comments were made in the wake of a speech delivered by Martin yesterday afternoon to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. In the speech, Martin promised that tax cuts would become one of the government's main priorities over the next few years. No promises were made about increased funding for Medicare or other important government services. The speech was a great disappointment for advocates of public health care and supporters of other programs and services aimed at improving the lives of middle and low-income families, says Cormack. She also says the federal government is missing an important opportunity to fix damage to public services and infrastructure caused by years of brutal budget cuts. "The foundations of important public programs like Medicare have been seriously weakened by years of under-funding," says Cormack. "Canadians want to see these programs protected and strengthened - but that's not going to happen unless the government makes a more substantial financial commitment." Cormack says the country's biggest threat now comes not from debt or inflation, but from people in conservative business, media and political circles who are calling for deep tax cuts. Cormack says such cuts will rob the government of the revenue needed to properly fund public services. "If the government wants to maintain the quality and accessibility of public services like Medicare then it is imperative that they resist pressure from the Preston Mannings and Conrad Blacks of the world," says Cormack. "Reckless and irresponsible tax cuts may help wealthy individuals and corporations pad their bank accounts - but, for the vast majority of Canadians, these kinds of cuts will do much more harm than good." Instead of yielding to pressure from right-wing ideologues, Cormack says the federal Liberals should listen to the majority of working Canadians who want more attention paid to public programs and services. In particular, she says surplus funds should be used to shore up Medicare; to repair and expand the country's crumbling infrastructure; to increase access to UI benefits for the unemployed; and to finance new initiatives like a national daycare system and a nation-wide Pharmacare plan. Reforms need to be made to Canada's tax system, Cormack admitted, but she says they should be aimed exclusively at low and middle-income earners - not high-flying CEOs and managers. An increase in the basic personal exemption; the introduction of more progressive tax brackets; or the full indexation of tax brackets to inflation are the only kinds of changes that could be justified, she says. "Paul Martin and the federal Liberals are playing a dangerous game," concludes Cormack. "Reckless and poorly-planned tax cuts could spell the end for Medicare and other public programs that have helped define Canada as a nation. Let's just hope the Liberals come to their sense before they follow Preston Manning and Conrad Black off a cliff." For more information call: Audrey Cormack, AFL President @483-3021(wk)/499-6530(cell)428-9367(hm)

Cormack applauds federal pay equity settlement: urges Alberta to follow federal lead

EDMONTON - The federal government has finally acted in an appropriate manner in its pay equity dispute with its own employees, says Audrey Cormack, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour. Cormack says the agreement announced today between the Public Service Alliance and the Treasury Board will finally provide some justice for the 200,000 current and former employees who have been consistently underpaid in the past. "I applaud the Federal government for deciding to finally abide by the original Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision," says Cormack. "Any further judicial appeals against the decision would have been grossly unfair to these women  - and a total waste of taxpayers money." However, it is the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) that deserves all of the credit for this victory for working people, according to Cormack. "The PSAC has been fighting this battle for the past fifteen years - and they deserve heartfelt thanks from working women, trade unionists and social justice advocates across Canada," says Cormack. Women workers under federal jurisdiction in the private sector should now expect some action to address their pay inequities, according to Cormack. "Now that the federal government has finally set a standard, I believe that private sector employers under federal jurisdiction must act promptly to meet those same standards with their own employees," says Cormack. The labour leader also believes that this settlement should convince the Alberta government to reconsider its opposition to pay equity. "The Alberta government has consistently refused to address the inequity of its own pay structures," says Cormack. "But, they are now clearly lagging behind the mainstream of Canadian society in the area of women's pay. I urge them to take this settlement as a sign that it is time to correct their own unjust treatment of women workers - and to pass pay equity legislation that will create fairness for women working for other private and public employees in Alberta." For more information call:Audrey Cormack, President:   780-483-3021 (wk) / 780-499-6530 (cell) / 780-428-9367 (hm)

Cormack urges federal government to "stop dragging its feet on pay equity"

EDMONTON - The time has come for the federal government to stop dragging its feet on the issue of pay equity for public employees, says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. Cormack says a decision handed down this afternoon by the Federal Court reinforces the need for sweeping changes in the way the federal government pays its employees. It also underscores the need to compensate thousands of employees for years of discriminatory pay practices. In a written judgement, Justice J. Evans of the Federal Court rejected a federal government appeal of a landmark pay-equity decision made last year by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. In July 1998, the Tribunal ruled that the federal government had, for years, been underpaying thousands of employees working in female-dominated job classifications. To remedy the situation, the Tribunal ordered the government to give 13 years of back pay to almost 200,000 current and former employees - most of whom are women. "These women have waited long enough for fairness," said Cormack, pointing out that the complaint that started the whole debate on pay equity was originally filed with the Human Rights Tribunal in 1985. "Fourteen years is a long time. Now that the Federal Court has upheld the Tribunal's decision, the government should do the right thing and give these workers what they are owed." Cormack acknowledged that the government could still appeal the decision to the Federal Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. But she said further appeals would benefit no one. "There is absolutely no doubt that the Human Rights Tribunal's decision was the right one - both morally and legally - so any appeal to the Federal Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court would simply be a further waste of taxpayers money," said Cormack. "With this in mind, we are calling on the federal government to procedure with the implementation of the Tribunal's decision without further delay. People like Prime Minister Chretien and Treasury Board President Lucienne Robillard should remember that old saying: 'justice delayed is justice denied.' In this case, we think that justice has already been denied for too long." For more information call: Audrey Cormack, President:   780-483-3021 (wk) / 780-499-6530 (cell) / 780-428-9367 (hm)

Is government set to drop "atom bomb" on provincial public service?

EDMONTON - The provincial government's recently announced plan to establish a so-called Corporate Services Centre and outsource certain administrative functions is much more serious than it appears at first blush, says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization. Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says the government is deliberately trying to downplay the significance of the privatization plan announced by Premier Klein yesterday - but she says it has the potential to act like an "atom bomb" dropped on the provincial public service. "Based on the information we've been able to gather from conversations with government officials, it seems clear to us that this proposal involves much more than a small cosmetic change," says Cormack. "What they're talking about is privatizing a large portion of the day-to-day operations of all government departments. This has radical implications both in terms of jobs and the quality of public services." According to government media statements, many of the so-called "transactional elements" of the government's day-to-day operations will be centralized in a new agency called the Alberta Corporate Services Centre. Once this has been done, many (and possibly most) of these services will be outsourced to the private sector, said government spokesperson Peter Tadman in a telephone conversation with the AFL. Tadman defined "transactional" services as all those services that don't involve policy-making or strategic planning. "By Tadman's definition, more than 75 or 80 percent of the jobs in the provincial public service are transactional in nature," says Cormack. "That means that thousands of jobs could be effected. This could be the biggest privatization initiative that the Alberta government has ever embarked upon." Premier Klein has said that the introduction of the Corporate Services Centre could reduce administration costs by up to 20 per cent, but Cormack wonders if that is the government's real motivation. She also says the government's deliberately vague media statements have left the public with more questions than answers. "Is this really about saving money or are they simply attempting to use outsourcing as a way to get rid of pesky public sector unions?" asked Cormack. "How many jobs are going be affected? And where did the idea for these changes come from? This kind of initiative was never mentioned at the Growth Summit - and it's not something that Albertans have been lobbying for. The public deserve answers for these kind of questions." Cormack scoffed at reassurances from Premier Klein that most of the affected employees would find new employment with private sector contractors. "This is the Alberta government's favourite dirty trick," says Cormack. "First they privatize a service and then they hire all the original employees back to work for the private contractor. The workers are sitting in the same desk and doing the same job - but they are paid less and they loose their pensions and benefits. This is a shameful way to save money and it's a shameful way to treat employees - especially at a time when the government is recording huge surpluses." Cormack says that Albertans should be concerned about any plan that involves funneling huge amounts of tax-payer dollars to for-profit corporations who are, by their very nature, unaccountable to the public. "Ralph Klein and members of his government have spent a lot of time saying that they're no longer in the business of business. With this plan, it sounds like they're trying to get out of the business of government as well. They seem willing to hand the keys of government over to their unelected cronies in the private sector. It's a frightening prospect - and I think it's time for Albertans to say 'enough is enough'." For more information call: Audrey Cormack, President     @ 483-3021 (wk) /499-6530 (cell) / 428-9367 (hm)  

AFL Reminds College of Physicians Of Its Duty to the Public Interest

The AFL is reminding the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons that it has an overarching responsibility to the public when considering proposed guidelines allowing overnight stays in health facilities. The Council of the College is meeting on Friday to decide whether to implement guidelines for "long stay non-hospital surgical facilities" which would allow procedures requiring overnight stay to be performed in private, for-profit facilities. "The College's primary duty is to ensure the public interest is protected in matters relating to doctors and health facilities," says Audrey Cormack, President of the AFL. "If they approve the proposed guidelines, it will permit private, for-profit hospitals in Alberta, which are clearly not in the public interest." Cormack points out that time after time, the Alberta public has loudly proclaimed its opposition to private, for-profit hospitals. "Whether it be Bill 37, or College guidelines, Albertans have been clear - they don't want for-profit hospitals." "I don't care what you call it, if it does overnight stays, it is a hospital," says Cormack. "Finding some bureaucratic title doesn't change its functions." "The future of Medicare is an inherently political matter and the College should not be meddling in politics," adds Cormack. Cormack also takes aim at the Health Minister for trying to blame opponents of Bill 37 for the situation. "If the minister is so concerned about Medicare, why doesn't he just pass a law banning private, for-profit hospitals? That would solve the problem in one stroke." Cormack states that the Minister is trying to get the College to do his dirty work. "The College shouldn't be bullied by the Health Minister into making a bad decision. Instead they should be listening to the concerns of Albertans," adds Cormack. The legislation governing the College stipulates that as a body it must protect the public interest when fulfilling its mandate. Allowing private, for-profit hospitals undermines the fabric of Medicare and establishes a path toward two-tier health care. International studies have demonstrated that two-tier health care and private, for-profit hospitals provide less adequate care for the majority of the population. "Friday's decision is not about boring technical guidelines. It is fundamentally about whether our health system is here to benefit the public interest or just the interest of a private few with connections and capital." Cormack concluded. For more information call: Audery Cormack, AFL President: 483-3021 (wk) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (home)

Latest minimum wage increase offers little cause for celebration

EDMONTON - Starting October 1, Albertans earning the minimum wage will see a slight boost in their earnings - but the increase offers little cause for real celebration, says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization. "Alberta may no longer have the lowest minimum wage in the country," says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "But it's still not nearly enough to make ends meet. The sad truth is that our minimum wage is still a poverty wage." Alberta's minimum wage has been increased in three stage over the past year - from $5.00 to $5.40 per hour on October 1, 1998; from $5.40 to $5.65 on April 1, 1999; and finally from $5.65 to $5.90 on October 1, 1999. As a result of the changes, Alberta has moved ahead of the four Maritime Provinces in terms of provincial minimum wage levels. But Alberta still lags far behind B.C., Quebec and Ontario where the minimum wages are $7.15, $6.90 and $6.85 respectively. Cormack points out that Alberta's new minimum wage is still not high enough to keep low-wage workers out of poverty. According to Statistics Canada, an individual living in Edmonton or Calgary would have to earn about $17,500 per year in order to live above the poverty line. "Even with the latest increase, minimum wage earners working full-time and year round would only earn about 70 per cent of the amount necessary to stay out of poverty," says Cormack. "There is something seriously wrong with this picture. The minimum wage should be high enough to allow people to live with dignity." Another major problem with the Klein government's approach to the minimum wage is that they have failed to put in place any mechanisms to adjust the wage for inflation, says Cormack. She points out that between 1977 and 1997; the real value of Alberta's minimum wage dropped by more than 40 per cent. This was the direct result of the government's refusal to introduce regular increases that compensated for inflation, she says. "One time increases to the minimum wage will not solve the problem," says Cormack. "What we really need is a system that makes regular adjustments for inflation. This is crucial because a wage that keeps people out of poverty today may not be enough to keep them out of poverty in the future. If the government doesn't recognize this problem and institute some kind of system for regular adjustments, then we're going to be right back where we started five or ten years from now." For more information call: Audery Cormack, AFL President: 483-3021 (wk) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (home)

Calgary Catholic School Dispute Caused By Overworking Teachers, Says AFL

The lock-out of Calgary Catholic School Teachers which began this morning is the inevitable result of years of provincial cutbacks to education says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour."Years of budget cutbacks to our education system has created exhausted, stressed and overworked teachers," says Cormack. "Every school year, they are being asked to teach bigger classes, to supervise more activities, to coordinate a greater range of programming. There comes a point where there is no more blood in the stone. "Teachers are saying "enough!", and rightly so."Shortly before the lock out, negotiations were making progress. The remaining issues surround the definition, use and remuneration for "non-teaching responsibilities". Cormack states that these issues are about stress and workload, which need to be addressed.Cormack also strongly criticizes the School Board for deciding to go ahead with the lock-out. "The teachers do not want to disrupt the students' education. Their approach has been to minimize the dispute's effect on the students. Obviously the Board doesn't have a similar commitment."Cormack warns the provincial government not to meddle in the dispute by invoking a "disputes inquiry board". The government used such a board in the Calgary public teachers' strike last spring to quash the strike. They have already threatened to use it in the Catholic schools' dispute. A disputes inquiry board imposes a 30-day delay on any strike or lockout while a minister-appointed board examines the issues."While the lock-out may be unfortunate, the solution is not to end it with an arbitrary government edict," says Cormack. "It is a sledgehammer that crashes down on the principle of free collective bargaining.""It does not address the issues in dispute," adds Cormack, "it simply pushes the problem 30 days into the future.""We wouldn't be in this situation had the government six years ago recognized that education is an investment, not a burden," concludes Cormack. For more information call: Audrey Cormack, AFL President: 483-3021 (wk) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (hm)

WCB continues to "blame the victim"

EDMONTON - Alberta's Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) is continuing its "long-established practice of blaming the victim" when it comes to issues of workplace health and safety, says the president of the province's largest labour organization. Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says that the WCB's latest injury-prevention campaign is a bust because it focuses exclusively on workers - and ignores the responsibilities of employers and the government. "Educating workers about workplace safety is important," says Cormack. "But it's only half of the solution. Employers and government also have an important role to play. More pressure needs to be placed on employers to ensure healthy and safe working conditions. And the government needs to become much more aggressive in finding and punishing employers who fail to observer minimum health standards." Cormack's comments were made after the WCB released a "safety alert" calling on Albertans to avoid workplace injuries by being careful on the job. The safety alert was the latest component of a WCB campaign launched in the spring aimed at reducing injury rates. The campaign urges Albertans to avoid injuries by "working safe." "Once again, the WCB is putting the responsibility for workplace safety on the shoulders of working people, when in reality it should be a responsibility that's shared with the employer, the government and the WCB," says Cormack. "Telling people not to hurt themselves is not going to solve the problem. We'll only be able to reduce injury rates if we combine education efforts with higher health and safety standards, more aggressive inspections and stiffer fines and penalties." "If the WCB is really concerned about reducing injury rates," Cormack says, "they should support the implementation of measures that have worked in other jurisdictions. For example, in places like B.C. and Quebec businesses over a certain size are required to have joint employee-management health and safety committees. Where these committees are in place, injury rates have fallen substantially," says Cormack. "Instead of wasting their time producing frivolous "safety alerts" calling on people to stretch before lifting heavy objects, the WCB should turn its attention to more serious concerns," says Cormack. "For example, they should be trying to figure out why the number of workplace fatalities in this province has shot up from 74 in 1993 to well over 100 per year in 1997 and 1998. And they should be addressing the serious concerns that have been raised recently about the quality of service available to injured workers. This campaign of blaming workers for their own injuries just doesn't cut it - it does nothing to address the real problems." For more information call: Audrey Cormack, AFL President: 483-3021 (wk) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (hm)  

AFL raises concerns about WCB satisfaction survey

EDMONTON - The "customer satisfaction" survey that is being used by the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) to defend itself from mounting public criticism is deeply flawed and misleading, says the president of Alberta's largest union organization. "Over the past few weeks, spokespeople from the WCB have repeatedly trotted out results from their annual client satisfaction survey. They've been using the survey to back up claims that things are running smoothly at the Board and that most people are satisfied with the service they receive," says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "Unfortunately, the survey is deeply flawed. The Board only questioned people whose claims have been settled and whose files have been closed. People who are still waiting for a decision on their claims were excluded - as were people who are still receiving compensation payments or services such as rehabilitation therapy, vocational training, or employment counselling." As a result of the survey's design, Cormack says the Board has failed to get an accurate picture of how its clients - injured workers and employers - really feel about the service they receive. "The survey neglects to consider the views of the people who are most likely to be dissatisfied," says Cormack. "Given this situation, it's no wonder the WCB gets such high marks. That's what happens when you only question the people who are least likely to complain." The WCB's satisfaction survey is conducted every year and the results are published in the Board's annual report. The 1998 survey showed satisfaction rates among the people surveyed were up slightly from 1997. "I have no problem with surveys - they can be useful tools," says Cormack. "But I'm concerned that be excluding so many people, the survey paints a false picture. I'm also concerned that the Board is hiding behind these numbers and using them as an excuse to not address the pressing concerns about service and accountability that are being raised by workers and employers around the province." For more information call: Audrey Cormack, AFL President: 483-3021 (wk) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (hm)

WCB needs fixing, but privatization is not the answer, says AFL

EDMONTON - The Alberta Workers Compensation Board (WCB) does not always treat injured workers fairly, but replacing it with a system of private insurance will not fix the problem, says the leader of Alberta's largest union organization. "It's true that the WCB doesn't always work in the best interests of injured workers," says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "Too many legitimate claims are rejected and too many injured workers are forced to wait months or even years for the benefits they need and deserve. But just because the system is flawed doesn't mean that it should be scrapped entirely. We have to be careful not to the throw the baby out with the bath water." Cormack's comments come in the wake of rising criticism of the WCB and calls for the introduction of a private, for-profit system of compensation for injured workers. Cormack says she agrees with many of the criticisms that have been leveled against the WCB - but she says privatization would make things worse, not better. "The big complaints about the current system have to do with accountability, the appeals process and the manner in which claims are assessed," says Cormack. "Many people feel that legitimate claims are being downgraded or rejected in order to save the WCB money. And they think the WCB is not open and transparent enough. But privatization won't fix any of these problems. If anything, profit-seeking insurance companies will have an even bigger incentive to deny claims - and they will be even less open to public scrutiny." Cormack says the question of whether or not it makes sense to privatize the WCB has been studied numerous times over the past ten years. In almost all cases, she points out, academics and other people investigating the issue have concluded that Canada's current system of publicly-controlled compensation for injured workers is far superior to the private, for-profit systems that exist in places like the United States. Among other things, the various studies have concluded that private insurance companies operating in competitive compensation systems tend to provide lower benefit rates to injured workers put a much lower priority on rehabilitation of injured workers charge higher premiums for many employers - in fact, under some private systems, employers in high risk industries find it almost impossible to get coverage. In addition, in competitive systems there are often no formal appeal procedures for workers who are not satisfied with decisions made by the private insurance companies. A worker's only recourse is often to hire a lawyer - at great expense - and attempt to fight it out in the court system. Aside from all of these problems with private insurance systems, Cormack says privatization would undermine the Meredith Principle - which has acted as the cornerstone of Canada's workers' compensation system for more than 80 years. According to the Meredith principle, individual injured workers give up their right to sue their employers in exchange for a guarantee of fair compensation. But Cormack points out that under most private compensation schemes, workers retain their right to sue. This exposes employers to much higher levels of financial liability and greatly increases costs for individual workers as they pursue their claims. "It's a lose-lose scenario for workers and employers," says Cormack. "When you look at the systems that exist in the United States, it's clear that the interests of working people in Alberta would not be well-served by introducing a market-model for workers' compensation in the province. Privatization would mean lower benefits and fewer opportunities for rehabilitation for most workers; higher premiums for many employers; and reduced accountability to the public. With these facts in mind, I find it hard to understand how anyone could support privatization." For more information call: Audrey Cormack, AFL President: 483-3021 (wk) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (hm) or Gil McGowan, Director of Communications:  483-3021 (wk)