There are the rumblings of serious labour disputes all over the province of Alberta. The bitter 7 month long strike at the Shaw Conference centre late last year in Edmonton was a sign of things to come. The lines have been drawn. The Tories slashed wages and jobs in the infamous “Klein revolution” of the 1990’s, complete with downsizing, cut backs and wage rollbacks. The labour movement was caught completely off-guard. We were told that when the recession was over and the province was out of debt – wages and funding to social programs would be restored. This clearly didn’t happen. We just went through one of the biggest so-called booms ever– but even still profit levels were falling and the restoration of wages and funding didn’t take place. Now that we have hit the big brick wall of what could potentially be one of the biggest ‘recessions’, or financial collapses in human history, we see an all out assault by the Tories and their corporate friends against workers and students in this province.

Everyone is feeling the squeeze. Nurses want an improvement to their contract with fairer working structures as well as fairer wage and working hour regulations– negotiations aren’t going well. The Tories are proposing the worst rollbacks seen in 30 years. In March, the government introduced legislation that will strip 7,000 health care workers employed outside hospitals of their right to strike – to add to legislation already banning in-hospital workers from striking. Bill 27 will fine unions of essential workers $1 million dollars for ‘illegally walking’ off the job, and the government has made it clear that even the talk of a strike vote can bring down the $1 million fine. It’s clear that this legislation is a result of the governments ‘irritation’ at public sector unions that defy back to work legislation. The government feels that their power (through the labour relations board and the courts) to levy fines as high as $10,000 against unions on ‘illegal’ strike, to strip unions of the power to collect dues from members for up to six months, and that the power to decertify unions in the event of an ‘illegal’ strike is not enough to prevent or discourage the labour struggles looming ahead. The Edmonton Journal (March 14, 2003) reported that “the government is reportedly under pressure to increase the fines by Alberta’s large regional health authorities.”

There is also a dispute growing with Telus workers. It is this dispute we can clearly see that the Alberta government, and its corporate friends are attempting to export their antiunion laws. Telus and its union have been without a contract since 2000, following the merger with B.C. Tel, and the corporation has began measures which will result in 6,500 jobs being slashed. Telus wants to restructure certain parts of the contracts for workers in B.C., because, as the Edmonton Journal (March 14, 2003) reported “Telus says the TWU (BC union representing 17,000 workers in B.C.) contract, won in an earlier era of monopoly operation and regulated rates of return, is overly generous and unsuitable in today’s business climate.” Telus plans to basically bring in laws and contracts from Alberta to crush the unions in B.C., and assist Mr. Campbell, by being a marvelous example of the Klein Revolution, in his throttling of unions and the gains they have made in B.C. Any move of this sort would be a step backward for the labour movement. We must defend the gains of the past. We must point out that Telus is not losing money because wages are too high or because B.C. union contracts are out of date – Telus is losing money because they invested millions in the IT stock market bubble, which coincided with their voracious acquisitions in that same IT industry.
They were spending more than they could afford, counting on investment returns – when the bubble burst. They had over extended themselves and now they need to pull back. They do this first, by attacking workers’ rights and gains (in the form of wages and holiday’s etc…), because they want to boost profits without loosing any acquisitions. Foreseeing a boom in the future (although given the present state of the world economy we must disagree with this economic forecast), they are hoping that these acquisitions and new assets will begin to pay off.

Now we see that some 700-900 teachers are being laid off in the Edmonton area, and a further 250 -350 in Calgary, because of arbitration and Tory legislation on education (during the last contract negotiations teachers were awarded a 14% rise in pay. There is a shortage of money to pay salaries because school boards are bound by legislated budgets, which can not possibly meet the awarded settlements to teachers. The government refuses to cover the short fall). All the government had to say was that the lay offs could have been avoided if wages had been rolled back and not increased, adding also that if all teachers worked an extra six minutes a day then the short fall next year could be avoided. The ATA hasn’t taken any decisive action, and even voted not to federate to the Alberta Federation of Labour, although they have decided to strengthen ties with the federation and increase political activism.

Another piece of anti-union legislation, Bill 44, is the government’s solution to ‘salting’. Under this law, unions will not have access to company info used on a union drive, effectively making ‘salting’ illegal. This gives thecompanies and government much power to stop an organizing drive, and de-certify unions caught with ‘illegal’ information.

The Tories have also proposed changes to the University Act, giving them the power to disband the Student’s Union and Board of Governors if they feel they aren’t behaving, as well as changes that will serve to privatize the system by allowing community colleges and trade schools to give baccalaureate degrees. Perhaps the most draconian element to this law, is the clause that would ban Teaching Assistants and Sessionals from organizing in a union, as well as banning them from going on strike. The cost of University tuition continues to rise, and the University of Alberta just announced deep cuts to the Faculty of Arts and to graduate studies funding. Education is very quickly becoming a pipe dream for the majority of working Albertans.

The bosses and the provincial government are getting ready for serious labour disputes. They can see all the signs on the road ahead. Many in the labour movement can see them as well, but the point is that the labour movement should actually be writing these signs and placards for all to see, thereby pushing the struggle forwards. We must struggle against these draconian laws, and all the anti-union legislation in this province. We must mobilize to defend our right to strike and our right to union representation. The question of a 24 hour general strike against the government and its policies must be raised as the only means of truly demonstrating opposition to this government, its anti-union laws and its destruction of social programs. It wouldn’t be the first time in the recent past that the question of a general strike has been raised – it was raised by quite a few around the Shaw Conference Centre struggle and recently at the AFL convention. A general strike, especially in this province, would send a strong signal to the government that we mean business, as well as signaling to workers all over Canada and the world that we can fight back in the war on our rights and jobs.

A 24 hour general strike would demonstrate to all just who exactly has control over society and allow the labour movement to realize its strength and mobilize support for an NDP government, which, based on a socialist program would actually begin dismantling all the reactionary laws and begin not only to legislate in favour of workers and the labour movement, but begin the tasks of the socialist transformation of society as the only means to struggle against capitalism and all that comes with it – unemployment, homelessness, hunger and poverty and war.

Rob Lyon