A plan to lay off more than 1,000 teachers across Alberta is being met with fierce opposition from unions and special interest groups, who say the decision can't be justified.
"Our provincial government wants Albertans to believe these are tough times," said Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "We should not be as a province talking austerity, we should not be talking freezes. We are a province that can afford high quality public services."
Roughly 1,200 teaching jobs are expected to be eliminated this fall, the result of funding cuts to education programs that have left school boards unable to balance their books. On Tuesday Edmonton's Public School Board announced that 229 teachers would be lost.
But members of "Join Together Alberta" - comprised of a variety of unions and special interest groups - say that schools boards shouldn't be forced to consider job cuts when the province has money to spend.
"We think in the short term the provincial government should be drawing from the substantiality fund to make sure our public services are maintained," McGowan said.
Sharon Armstrong, vice-president of the Alberta Teacher's Association, believes a united voice could help convince the province to loosen it's purse-strings.
"The individual in Alberta has a lot of power if they choose to use it," Armstrong said. "I believe if they speak out strongly, the government will listen."
Vanessa Sauve, president of the Holyrood Parents Council, is lending her voice to the chorus, concerned about what cuts could mean for children.
"Parents are worried," Sauve said. "Larger class sizes for their child means less class time with the teacher and things can get missed."
Education Minister Dave Hancock could not be reached for comment Thursday, but earlier in the week suggested that the province has increased education spending by nearly 70 percent in the last decade.
Global Toronto, Thurs May 26 2011
Gil McGowan, President
Our current provincial government wants Albertans to believe that these are tough times.
They want us to believe that the recession has left them with no choice but to trim budgets and cut funding ... even for vital services like education.
People like Premier Stelmach and Education Minister Dave Hancock put on their most sorrowful faces and said things like:
"We're sorry, but – really – there is no alternative."
But ordinary Albertans know in their hearts and their guts that there is something seriously wrong with this picture.
They see mega projects ramping up; they see glitzy office towers rising; they see the economy springing back to life.
And they wonder: Why?
Why, amidst such plenty, should we be laying off teachers and other education workers?
Why should we be under-funding our universities, colleges and technical schools?
Why should we be cutting services for the needy and the disabled?
Why should we be skimping on the services and programs that we need to build a stronger foundation for the future of our province and its citizens?
The truth is: There is no good reason.
The truth is: It is ordinary Albertans, with hearts and their guts, who are right, and it's our politicians, with their pious pronouncements, who are wrong.
Facts are sometimes inconvenient for politicians. They get in the way of the stories they tell voters and tell themselves.
But when we're talking about our schools and our hospitals ... about services for our kids, our grandparents and the most vulnerable members of our society ... then we can't afford to ignore the facts.
And what do the facts tell us?
Well, they tell us that Alberta is one of the most prosperous jurisdictions not only in Canada, but in the entire world.
They tell us that we still have no public debt ...
...that, on a person basis, our provincial economy is 75 percent larger than the Canadian average...
...that corporate profits in the province have increased by more than 400 percent over the past decade...
...that ten of billions of dollars in investment continue to pour into the oil sands each year.
These are NOT tough times.
We are a province that can think big and dream big. And we are certainly a province that can afford to provide adequate, stable long-term funding for core services like education.
There is another part of the government story that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
That's the part where they tell Albertans that we has a spending problem – that costs are out of control for public services.
But, once again, the facts tell a different story.
They tell us that, despite our wealth, Alberta's per person spending on public services is bang on the national average.
They tell us that overall spending on public services has barely kept up with our province's robust population growth.
And they tell us that, as a share of our provinces overall economic pie, spending on public services has actually gone down over the last 20 years – and not by just a little bit.
All of this begs the question: if we can afford our services (which, clearly, we can) and if spending is under control (which, clearly, it is) why, then, is the Stelmach government still recording deficits?
This is the real question that Albertans need to be asking themselves and their politicians: now; during the Tory leadership race and in the next election.
And the answer is clear: the reason our cupboard is bare is because our provincial government has decided to make it bare.
Successive governments here in Alberta have deliberately stopped collecting a reasonable and responsible share of our province's economic pie to fund the public services that Albertans need. Years and years of ill-conceived tax and royalty cuts have left us with an inadequate and unreliable revenue base.
Alberta is like a rich guy with a big hole in his pocket. He keeps shoving the money in, but his pockets are always empty at the end of the month. The answer is not for the rich guy to sell his house, or tell his kids they're going to live on Kraft dinner. The answer is to fix the hole.
That's why we've re-established the Join Together Alberta coalition ... and it's why we'll be circulating our declaration and hosting townhalls across the province.
We want to help Albertans understand that lay-offs and larger class sizes are not inevitable or unavoidable.
We want to remind our leaders and the public about the important role that public services play in building a more sustainable, equitable and prosperous future.
We want to demonstrate that what we have is a revenue problem, not a spending problem.
We want to pressure our politicians to stop preaching austerity when it is clearly unwarranted.
And we to call on the government to deal with the real problem: which is Alberta's broken system for revenue generation.
The good news is that thoughtful members of our provincial community are starting to wake up and speak out. Peter Lougheed, members of the premier's advisory panel on economic strategy, think tanks like the Parkland Institute and the Canada West Foundation: they're all calling for a discussion on revenue reform.
Politicians don't like to talk about taxes. But for the sake of our kids, our families and our future, this is a discussion we have to have. We're going to do our part to make sure that happens.
River Valley Room, Chateau Lacombe
March 26, 2011
Wave of school layoffs prompts coalition to launch new province-wide campaign: Join Together Alberta calls on government to fix Alberta’s broken revenue system
EDMONTON – In the wake of reports warning that up to 1,200 Alberta teachers may be laid off in the next few months, a province-wide campaign is being launched to force the Conservative government to fix the real problems facing the province.
"We live in one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world and yet our education system is clearly in crisis," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, which represents 140,000 workers. "This situation is entirely unnecessary and has been created by Alberta's broken revenue system. We need to fix our revenue system to save our schools."
Sharon Armstrong, vice-president of the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA), says: "In September, Alberta's school boards will be $100 million dollars short of the money they will need to maintain the quality of education that we enjoy today. Up to 1,200 teachers across the province will be looking for work this summer elsewhere, because their job in Alberta has disappeared. We appreciate the government's recent announcement of new schools, but the schools are useless unless we have the staff inside them to inspire our students."
The Join Together Alberta coalition - an alliance of community groups, social-services agencies and unions, including the AFL - has been reformed to put pressure on the government to fix the revenue problem so Albertans get the vital public services they demand and deserve.
"The real issue is that Alberta has been crippled by a decade of ill-conceived tax and royalty cuts. Alberta has an abundance of natural resources. There is no reason it can't afford stable funding," says McGowan.
The coalition will launch Phase 2 of its campaign in Edmonton tomorrow (Thursday) to demand the Alberta government fix its broken system for revenue generation. McGowan and Armstrong will be joined by people representing various sectors and unions fighting cuts who will be available to speak to media.
TIME: 10:30 a.m., Thursday, May 26
LOCATION: River Valley Room, Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe, 10111 Bellamy Hill, Edmonton
CONTACTS: Gil McGowan, president, Alberta Federation of Labour, 780-218-9888
One group, made up mainly of students, marched from Grant Mac-Ewan University. Another, made up of more than 150 people including social workers from around Alberta, seniors and people with disabilities, marched from the Shaw Conference Centre.
Cars honked to show support as the line of demonstrators paraded down Jasper Avenue, chanting, carrying flags and signs and holding lengths of coloured fabric intended to represent the fabric of Alberta's communities. Gary F. Johnston, who is blind, used the fabric to guide him as he marched to the rally.
"I don't agree with job cuts," said Johnston, who came by bus with a group from Calgary to attend the event. "It's not that Alberta can't afford it here."
About 400 people converged at the legislature early Saturday afternoon to oppose government cuts announced in February as part of the 2010-11 provincial budget. Many protesters wore plaid scarves of green, blue and gold, distributed at 22 town hall meetings across the province organized by Join Together Alberta.
The coalition of unions has been holding the meetings and urging citizens to speak out against cuts to public services they say will lengthen health-care wait times, increase school class sizes and undermine services for vulnerable Albertans such as people with disabilities.
Demonstrators waving union flags and carrying signs that read "Stop the Cuts" and "Education is a Right" cheered and chanted as they listened to several speakers, including Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour and a key organizer of Saturday's rally.
"Since the provincial budget came down on Feb. 9, I've been trying to understand the process behind it," McGowan told the crowd. "I've been trying to get into the heads of people like Ed Stelmach and (Finance Minister) Ted Morton, and I guess that might explain why I'm feeling a little under the weather."
McGowan criticized the government for responding to the global recession by eliminating public service jobs, freezing wages, cutting employment programs "and slashing services for families in need."
"Who believes that Alberta, Canada's richest province by almost any definition, can no longer afford all these services that we currently have?" McGowan said.
"We know that public services strengthen the fabric of our communities and our economy. We know that investments in things like schools and colleges and infrastructure are absolutely crucial to a more prosperous and equitable future."
Grade 11 Harry Ainlay student Mallory Chipman, who organized the student march, told the crowd she was "shocked" and disappointed at the cuts announced in the provincial budget, especially those that will drive up the cost of post-secondary education.
"A post-secondary education is beyond expensive already," Chipman said. "Increasing it by hundreds of dollars makes it that much more difficult for us as students to achieve this level of education. Is post-secondary education in this province going to be only for the wealthy? Are the oil rigs going to be the only answer for those who want to make a decent living, but can't afford to pursue a higher education?"
The government has made $1.3 billion in cuts to areas such as environment, children and youth services and employment. However, that money is being reinvested back into priority areas such as health and education, said Alberta Finance spokesman Bart Johnson.
Alberta Health Services will get a one-time debt repayment of $759 million and a massive 17-percent increase in its operating budget. School boards will receive $250 million more. Funding for programs for people with developmental disabilities will stay the same, as will the Alberta Seniors Benefit and AISH.
"So there were cuts in other areas of government, but the focus was on protecting funding in those most important areas, being health, education and supports for seniors and the vulnerable," Johnson said.
"Given what we were up against as a province -- a large deficit with our revenues having dropped off significantly in the past two years -- I think we struck a good balance in terms of reducing costs in some areas of program spending and increasing or maintaining costs in those most important areas."
Edmonton Journal, Sun Mar 21 2010
Calgary Herald, Sun Mar 21 2010
Byline: Andrea Sands
Hundreds of people gathered at the Alberta legislature on Saturday afternoon to protest cuts to public services.
Chanting "Save Our Services," the protesters carried signs warning of cuts to funding for healthcare, education and social programs.
An estimated 500 people, from communities across the province, turned out for the rally.
Jerry Toews, with the Alberta Federation of Labour and one of the rally's organizers, said the provincial government's financial blueprint is being misunderstood.
"It seems to us that the government has somehow spun a story that this is a good news budget, that this in fact is a spending budget," Toews said.
"When you look into it, it isn't. It's anything but a good news budget.
"There are billions of dollars that are being cut to public services that Albertans need."
The protest was organized by Join Together Alberta, a relatively new group that has banded together a number of unions and public interest groups.
"It may be the first time in many years that such a broad base of groups has gotten together," Toews said.
"Whether it's unions and labour groups, but also public interest groups, social services groups, students, elderly folks - it's people realizing that public services impact all of our lives and that they're worth investing in."
CBC News, Sat Mar 20 2010
PUBLIC SECTOR CUTS: Joining together brings success: Join Together Alberta redoubles efforts to change this year's provincial budget
Before the budget was released, it was assumed by many that it would contain cuts to the public sector in the range of $2 to $3 billion. Though the budget released on February 9th did contain significant cuts, they were not as large as some had feared.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour and a partner in the Join Together Alberta coalition believes the public sector cuts were not as severe as they could have been. Through the organizing of town hall meetings, rallies and online campaigns, McGowan believes the work of the Alberta Teachers Association, the Alberta Union of Public Employees and the Join Together coalition helped to stave off some of the cuts that could have happened, and McGowan is convinced that, without the group's hard work, "the budget would have been much more brutal."
And the budget was brutal enough according to those concerned with public sector spending. A total of $1.3 billion cut from 14 ministries, with a goal of cutting $240 million more over the course of the year. Headlines covering the budget focused largely on increased spending on Alberta Health Services and school boards but the $1.3 billion cut will impact directly on many Albertans both as employees and as recipients of services. Areas hardest hit by this budget include housing, families, children, culture and education.
Join Together Alberta spent the months leading up to the budget traveling across Alberta holding town halls, meetings and rallies against cuts to the public sector, and this Saturday the coalition will join together again to march to the legislature and show support for funding to the public sector.
According to a budget analysis prepared for the Join Together Alberta coalition, the cuts, while spread over 14 ministries, target the things Albertans value "highly," including the environment, sustainable resource development, the arts, grants for post-secondary students as well as the vulnerable: children, youth, the unemployed, immigrants and seniors.
The Edmonton Social Planning Council's budget analysis found that with this budget, "the province is providing less than one-third of the required funding" towards its stated goal of ending homelessness in the province. They also point out that the budget for income support is being cut by $47 million in the next year-surprising, considering Statistics Canada released the latest employment numbers last week showing that job losses in Alberta are continuing.
Grants to students in advanced education and technology were cut by $54 million-this, while tuition increases are at the maximum allowable rate and universities are looking at non-tuition fees to increase revenues, making a university education in the province even less accessible.
At the same time, $28 million of funding was cut from child intervention services, an area where advocates have complained for years of chronic under-funding. This 6.8 percent funding reduction is to a service that is fundamentally concerned with the health and safety of the most vulnerable children.
There are cuts in many other ministries: Employment and Immigration has an almost 7 percent cut, Environment has over an 11 percent cut, and Culture and Community Spirit is facing a budget cut of 8.1 percent.
Even in areas where there were little or no cuts, the possibility of growth in need was not accounted for. The assumption is that fewer children will require care, fewer unemployed people will require assistance, fewer immigrants will require support, and fewer people will require assistance to pay their rent. But these assumptions seem at odds with the most recent employment numbers, showing that Alberta is the only province to see unemployment continue to rise, with nearly 15 000 jobs lost in February alone.
McGowan believes one of the lessons of this most recent budget is that "citizens can make a difference when they band together and speak out against deep cuts to public services."
Vue Week, week of March 18, 2010, Issue 752
Byline: Tiffany Brown-Olsen
It's tough enough running a public sector union in a province like Alberta, where fat cats get a pass and working stiffs the straight-arm.
So when the provincial government's latest budget yanks the carpet out from under your fear and loathing campaign, what do you do?
You claim victory - sort of.
Organized labour and its allies crafted a coalition dubbed Join Together Alberta and took it across the province, holding public hearings to pre-emptively protest what was expected to be a slash and burn blueprint.
It could be the biggest such group to take on the status quo in Alberta history.
The coalition insists it is ecstatic with the turnout in Tory or possibly Wildrose heartlands.
"We were bringing in extra tables and chairs," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.
That was before the Feb. 9 budget was handed down prior to the final few townhalls, which took the wind out of the campaign's sails.
"Attendance was down a little bit because the cuts were not as deep as we expected," said McGowan.
While the JTA attracted 200 people in Lethbridge prior to Feb. 9, it managed no more than that in Calgary and Edmonton following budget day, said the unionist.
The coalition had fully expected the government to placate the surging Wildrose by slicing deeply into programs.
But while there were cuts to 14 departments, the savings were transferred to health care and education.
"The budget is something of a victory for the coalition - I'd like to think it had something to do with the position of people like us," said McGowan.
I'm not so sure about that, but there is a certain irony in seeing government minds focused by an insurgency on the right delivering spending to the partial satisfaction of the left.
Ideological purity pales against peoples' desire for accessible health care, hockey rinks, passable roads and decent schools.
McGowan says as much himself, almost sounding like the unlikeliest ally Danielle Smith ever had.
"There's nothing like nervous politicians to get them to listen," he says.
Some Wildrosers even showed up at the JTA townhalls, says McGowan, and left uncertain about their political loyalties.
But that was before the budget.
And now, isn't there a complacency - and a renewal of the time honoured-cynicism regarding union motivations?
"We're involved in the coalition partly because union jobs are at stake," admits McGowan.
The presence of so much labour in such activism could well detract from its credibility, he concedes.
"Would it be more effective if citizens rose up and organized their own groups? Sure, but we're the only ones with the wherewithall," said McGowan.
"If we weren't involved, there probably wouldn't be a campaign at all."
He's right - it's Alberta.
As it is, the AFL's membership base won't be hugely affected by the budget, he notes, but the JTA's efforts will continue.
Appearances must be upheld.
But this group has been mostly reduced to warning of budget axe time bombs down the road.
The spectre is raised of a repeat of the People with Developmental Disabilities blindsiding in this year's third quarter.
One of their arguments - that the sustainability fund should preclude spending cuts - actually compliments the government they hold in such suspicion.
McGowan says the JTA will offer a punchline to all this, sometime.
But inevitable, he says, is the need, even the realistic prospect of a "viable left-wing alternative" to replicate the success of the right's Wildrose Alliance.
In Alberta, that smacks of owning a podium too far.
Calgary Sun, Thurs Feb 25 2010
Byline: Bill Kaufmann
'Start moving forward,' Alberta left urged: Parkland Institute head tells progressives to lay out their education and health-care vision for province
In a fiery address at the end of a conference on economic and social policy, Ricardo Acuna urged Alberta's left to lay out what it wants in health care and education, rather than just organizing to battle against periodic cuts.
"It's time to stop fighting back and start moving forward," Acuna told the audience of about 80.
"It's time to stop being embarrassed or apologizing for our political positions. It's time to stop defending a status quo we find inadequate and start fighting for radical proposals."
Acuna was speaking after two days of sessions organized by the Parkland Institute and the Alberta Federation of Labour.
In one talk earlier Saturday, economist Greg Flanagan told the crowd that despite ballooning deficits, Alberta's budget problems are about revenue, not spending.
Adjusted for population, Alberta takes in billions less in tax revenue than any other province, said Flanagan, who recently retired from the University of Lethbridge. Even minor boosts to consumption or income taxes could easily eliminate the province's nearly $5-billion deficit, he added.
Flanagan's talk hit on a number of recurring themes at the conference, most notably that Alberta's tax system is unfair and that, during a recession, more public spending, not less, is needed.
Acuna, though, urged the attendees to move away from talk about balance sheets. Progressives should lay out explicit plans for the systems they want and only then ask people to pay more for them, he said.
"How did we get here?" Acuna asked. "How did we start talking about the bottom line, not people?"
Answering his own question, he laid part of the blame on the news media.
"Twenty years ago, we had labour reporters in this province," he said.
He also called on progressives to make their voices heard.
"Can you imagine if we had commentators as far to the left as (radio host Dave) Rutherford is to the right?" he asked.
"Can you imagine if we had columnists as far to the left as ( Edmonton Journal columnist) Lorne Gunter is to the right?"
The weekend conference, which took place at the University of Alberta, featured panels on alternatives to tax and spending cuts, lessons learned from the Klein-era cuts and public policy solutions, among others.
The Parkland Institute is a nonpartisan research centre at the university.
Edmonton Journal, Sun Feb 14 2010
Byline: Richard Warnica
Whether it's the best of time or the worst of times, the public sector is vital to the health of Alberta's economy and society.