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
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.
Alberta Premier to reveal budget plans over airwaves: Stelmach's pre-taped speech will address strategy for balancing finances in timely fashion and touch on health care and seniors
The pre-taped speech, which will air across the province tomorrow night, comes as Mr. Stelmach faces threats both from the faltering economy, which has doubled provincial unemployment in a year, and newly emboldened political foes. With the upstart Wild Rose Alliance Party gaining traction - and, in a September by-election, a first legislative seat - and his own Conservative Party leadership up for review next month, political observers say the address is a pivotal one.
Mr. Stelmach has spent recent months "in the shadows looking bad," said Peter McCormick, a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge. "He just has to step forward and be the guy. Mr. Alberta has to show up and reassure the party supporters that he's on top of it."
Mr. Stelmach taped segments of the 18-minute edited address at his office and home farm over the past few days, working to craft what aides promised is a "meaty" speech filled with specific new proposals.
"There's a four-point plan pointing the way forward to a balanced budget. It's clear and concise and comprehensive," said Tom Olsen, the Premier's spokesman. "Ed Stelmach's government has a plan to move forward."
With the plunge in oil and gas revenues driving the province to a nearly $7-billion deficit this year, the address will tilt heavily toward the economy. But, Mr. Olsen said, it will also touch on health care and seniors, a subject that has already generated heated debate after a leaked report pointed to the possible closing of 9,000 long-term care beds in the province.
"The Premier will underscore his commitment, as he has time and again, to a publicly funded health-care system," Mr. Olsen said.
But many expect Mr. Stelmach to use the provincewide pulpit to veer right, in hopes of using a fiscal-cutting agenda to take ground from the rising conservative Wildrose party, which elects a leader three days later.
"Mr. Stelmach grew up politically in the mid-nineties. He knows how to cut. He knows the success that can bring, or at least the perceived success," said Keith Brownsey, an associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary. The rise in Wildrose popularity "allows him to do exactly that."
The possibility of a public-sector wage freeze or cuts to health and education, the government's biggest budget items, has already struck fear in those who lived through the austere days that former premier Ralph Klein used to wipe out the province's debt.
"We're afraid that the Stelmach government is considering a return to Klein-style cuts, even though that would clearly be a bad move, in that it would make a bad economic situation in the province much worse," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Bold moves could be risky for Mr. Stelmach, who is still half a year from unveiling the province's next budget. Yet he may be keen to take a page from Mr. Klein, who launched a tradition of annual television addresses in 1994, just days before unveiling a cost-slashing budget.
Alberta at the time was facing a bulging debt and a multibillion-dollar deficit.
"We knew that a budget was coming that was going to be explosive. And so the calculation was made to get ahead of it," said Rod Love, who served as Mr. Klein's chief of staff.
A televised address only works if it is used to explain something new, he said.
"You have to have a reason to focus the debate," he said. "You just can't go on and say what you've been saying before."
Yet Mr. Stelmach may find himself limited by the fact that any dramatic change could reflect badly on his leadership, which began during the heady, free-spending boom that ended last summer.
"Ed's used up his first couple of years in office. He's running against his own record now," Prof. McCormick said. "He can't slash without taking responsibility for the things that are being slashed."
Globe and Mail, Tues Oct 13 2009
Byline: Nathan Vanderklippe