Only a month after its release, the consequences of the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) provincial budget have been revealed in completely unambiguous terms. In a letter sent to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), the government has announced that they plan to cut up to 7,400 public sector jobs by the 2022-23 fiscal year. This is not only an outright attack on the province’s public workers, but on working class Albertans who rely on these services. Although employment will be guaranteed up until March 30, starting April 1 the government intends to use “all available options” to meet their priorities, which is clearly code for lay-offs.
The most immediate impact will be on public healthcare. After a surprise meeting with the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) called by Alberta Health Services (AHS), UNA president Heather Smith said that these cuts will mean more than 750 front-line nurses will be laid off, along with up to 400 auxiliary care nurses. Smith has also stated that she believes this to be only the first wave of lay-offs. Nurses play an essential role in the operation of hospitals. These cuts will horribly affect the quality of these services. The UCP’s empty promise to “maintain or increase” health spending won’t mean a thing when hospitals crowd, waiting times increase, and people die as a consequence.
AHS also intends to cut between 1,000 to 2,000 housekeeping positions, 250 general support staff, 235 laundry and linen staff, and 165 foodservice employees, which will be achieved through both privatization and outright cuts. These services are absolutely necessary for maintaining clean hospitals. Likewise, this is a clear move by the UCP to partially privatize Alberta’s healthcare, a goal which was openly admitted to by Kenney himself back in February.
Home care positions will also receive cuts with plans to lay-off 200 service staff. Considering that Alberta has a 5.4 percent annual growth in its senior population, as compared to a national rate of 3.7 percent, these cuts will be particularly devastating to senior citizens who rely on home care. Likewise, the cuts to the Alberta Seniors Benefit Drug Program already announced by the UCP could leave up to 46,000 seniors without drug coverage.
These horrific cuts are all, of course, to fund the UCP’s $4.5 billion corporate tax cut introduced as part of their budget.
This is a slap in the face to every last working Albertan. The UCP intends to lay off thousands of public employees, and erode the quality of the services they provide, all to pay for a hand-out to the province’s rich elites. If left unopposed, these cuts will be devastating. We can’t simply wait another three and a half years for the next election to vote Kenney out while he further cuts social services which working class Albertans rely on.
Riding high in the polls at 60 percent after being elected, Kenney’s approval rating has now plummeted 18 percent down to 42 percent in the last two months. As well, an online poll conducted by CTV news Calgary resulted in 81 percent of respondents saying that they thought laying off hundreds of nurses was a “bad idea.” This shows that the UCP government is not as strong as it may seem and the anger against these cuts could pull the rug out from underneath the government. But this anger needs to find an organized expression.
The UCP recently held their convention on the weekend of November 30-December 1 where Kenney rallied the party behind his austerity program. Outside, over 1,500 angry trade unionists gathered. Before Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan could start speaking, the crowd broke into chants of “General strike! General strike!” The idea of a general strike is not at all alien to the traditions of workers in western Canada. 2019 is the anniversary of the celebrated 1919 Winnipeg general strike and McGowan wore a tuque commemorating this mass labour battle.
The rally forced Kenney to address the calls for a general strike at the convention, pleading for the unions to instead collaborate with the government in implementing these cuts. When asked whether or not the AFL would be organizing a general strike, McGowan responded, stating that, “This is not off the table, but it doesn’t have to happen if the UCP abandons this dangerous, damaging course that it’s on.”
But with Kenney doubling down on his austerity agenda, this is exactly the kind of mass action that is needed to beat back this reactionary government. Kenney’s cuts are wide-reaching, so the fight against him needs to be as equally wide-reaching. The AUPE alone represents 95,000 employees, the UNA 30,000 employees. A mass public sector strike would have the clear power to paralyze Kenney’s government and force him to roll back the cuts.
Alberta’s labour leadership needs to mobilize and commit to strike action. Unless Kenney receives serious opposition, his budget will leave thousands of people jobless and tens of thousands more struggling to make ends meet. Only through an active, organized class struggle can we meaningfully fight back against these cuts.