Jason Kenney’s honeymoon is over. A recent poll showed that Kenney has gone from being one of the most popular premiers in Canada to one of the most despised, with his approval rating dropping 15 points last fall. But this is not surprising, as the reality of what a Kenney government means is now hitting Albertan workers in the form of billions of dollars of cuts.
Kenney’s plans include laying off thousands of public sector workers, and huge cuts to healthcare, education, and social welfare programs, just to name a few. No one is spared from Kenney’s attacks, other than his rich friends of course, who are receiving $4.5 billion in the form of massive corporate tax cuts.
For Alberta nurses and teachers, their worst fears have been confirmed, with an arbitrator ruling on their contracts with the government that “no change to wage rates is justified”. For the teachers, this means they have not seen a wage increase in seven of the last eight years. “Members are angry and frustrated,” said Jason Schilling, president of the ATA, “They were hoping for better and received this… They are being asked to do more and more within their classrooms with less, and then to turn around and see that their salaries are frozen yet again is extremely disappointing.”
As for the nurses, their paycheques have stayed the same for the past three years. The United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) began their latest round of negotiations this month. Commenting on these upcoming negotiations, David Harrigan, director of labour relations for the UNA, said, “We’re not expecting a quick and easy round of negotiations.” The government has already planned to cut 500 full-time nurses in the next three years, and they will seek more cuts.
These cuts come on top of the fact that Edmonton now has the highest unemployment rate of any city in Canada, at eight per cent, compared to Canadian average of 5.6 per cent. Calgary also finds itself in the top five at 7.1 per cent. Things in Alberta are particularly bleak for young men as now one in five men under 25 is unemployed. The UCP promised that the billions of dollars’ worth of tax cuts would have all the job creators flocking to Alberta, but this has not been the case.
Build the general strike
In Alberta, the supposed heartland of Canadian conservatism, the call for a general strike has been pushed to the fore as many workers see no other way to defeat Kenney’s attacks. This past December the Alberta Federation of Labour held a town hall meeting to discuss the best methods to fight back against Kenney, and again, the most popular option was the idea of a general strike. But a general strike is not something that can simply be declared. It must be built from the ground up, and needs preparation with escalating actions.
In response to Kenney’s austerity, AUPE, UNA, HSAA, and other public sector unions have organized information pickets across the province. The mood at these info pickets is angry and militant. Workers are ready to bring the fight to Kenney. Some members have even begun to ask why they should bother trying to negotiate a new collective agreement when it is clear that the government is on the warpath and shows no signs of negotiating in good faith. Indeed, the government has declared in advance that they are prepared to use back-to-work legislation to take away the right to strike.
These info pickets are a good start but they run the risk of dying out if they aren’t escalated into city-wide and then province-wide rallies. The movement needs to build momentum and draw in the broadest possible layers of Alberta’s working class in order to become a rallying point for the struggle against the UCP government. Such escalating actions will build up the confidence of the working class, which is crucial to ensure the success of a general strike.
We need to relearn many working class tactics, particularly since Alberta has not seen a major strike since 2002, when over 20,000 teachers took job action. That strike ended after 13 days when the government passed back-to-work legislation, taking away the right to strike. Unfortunately, instead of defying this legislation, the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association at the time, Larry Booi, advised its members to report to work, and promised that they would fight the legislation in the courts. While the courts did rule that the legislation was unconstitutional, by the time the ruling came down the strike had already been defeated.
The main lessons that need to be taken from this struggle are the need to build a Common Front of all unions; and the need to build a movement that is prepared to defy back-to-work legislation. Union locals and labour councils across Alberta should commit themselves to solidarity strikes in support of any union that takes job action. The labour movement also needs to prepare to defy any back-to-work legislation that will surely be used to shut down strikes.
As we predicted in June of this year: “These attacks on the working class will have the effect of massively reducing the support for the UCP, and leave Kenney as one of the most despised Alberta premiers of all time.” With Kenney’s support evaporating, all that is needed is a mass working class movement to channel the growing anger and bring the government down like a house of cards.
Build towards a general strike!
Defy back-to-work legislation!
Bring down Kenney!