Source: David Bloom/Postmedia

The United Conservative Party (UCP) announced on Nov. 6 that they are demanding a four per cent salary cut for all unionized government employees, in just the latest addition to a string of relentless attacks on Alberta’s working class. Other employees will also see a further three per cent cut. On top of this, the UCP has also introduced Bill 47, which attacks working conditions and safety on the job. With the pandemic, the economy headed towards disaster, and many struggling financially, these attacks are rightfully seen by many workers as cruel. 

The UCP are trying to make the working class pay for the costs of the economic crisis and the pandemic in a few ways. The four per cent cut is one of them, done in the name of curbing excessive government spending. Another method has been the privatization of jobs, which busts public sector unions and makes workers more exploitable, while opening up new sectors for the bosses to make profits. Finally there is the campaign to strip all rights and protections away from workers, allowing the bosses to pinch pennies at the expense of their employees’ health and even lives. The end result is that the costs are put on the shoulders of the working class. People who are in precarious situations are more likely to accept lower wages and bad working conditions just to make ends meet, while the profits of the wealthy are maintained and even increased. 

Bill 47, the “Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act”, is ruthless: removing the legal requirement for employers to reinstate injured workers, capping the maximum insurable earnings for injured workers, limiting the ability of workers to refuse to work under unsafe and hazardous working conditions, and effectively eliminating protections for work-related mental health conditions. With the highest unemployment rates in Canada (Edmonton and Calgary are both sitting around 11-12 per cent), many Albertans are desperate to accept any work, regardless of lower pay and their own health and safety. 

Officially, these measures are supposed to “restore the balance back” in workplaces, as UCP Labour Minister Jason Copping puts it. However, the “balance” that the UCP seeks is one where the working class has no rights, no say, and no choices. The right to refuse work is seen by the UCP as an obstacle only because they are the representatives of Alberta’s ruling class—who own, control, and direct the workplaces for profits, not to protect the safety or well-being of the workforce.

The pandemic has made the right to refuse work under unsafe conditions even more important, as proper sanitation and cleanliness are needed to prevent COVID-19 spread. Many health-care workers have to handle biohazards, chemicals, and hospital infections, while ensuring patient safety and health. The UCP’s cost-cutting mentality and health-care privatization plans show their disregard for public health safety and worker safety more generally.

In April, as COVID-19 outbreaks spread freely through Cargill and JBS meat-packing plants, the disregard of the bosses killed workers and infected hundreds more. The right to refuse work was taken away when Occupational Health and Safety inspectors declared the sites safe—on video calls. This negligence led directly to multiple worker deaths. Any worker protections and rights are fundamentally at risk as long as workplaces are run by the bosses who only care about profits. Workers should not sit back while their jobs, their safety, and their rights are gambled away by the UCP for the profit of the capitalists.

Instances where cost-cutting has resulted in the injury and death of workers are sadly not uncommon. For example, CESSCO was fined $5,000 and required to implement fall protection measures after the death of a worker in 2016; on Oct. 28, a Trans Mountain pipeline worker was struck and killed on a job site in Edmonton. Deaths like these are preventable, and cost-cutting leads to a lack of protective measures and workplace safety standards. Yet the UCP would prefer that the workers have no right to refuse unsafe work, even if it meant a few deaths here and there. After all, work stoppages mean lost profits for the capitalists.

The UCP is hellbent on implementing their austerity politics, no matter how many laws they need to change, rules they need to break, or workers they need to kill. This was shown by Bill 9, which suspended wage arbitration for 65,000 Alberta Health Services and government employees. The United Nurses of Alberta also had their bargaining rights suspended. At every single step, the UCP has shown zero interest in negotiating with workers and unions. While Finance Minister Travis Toews bargains in the media, stating that the recent health-care wildcat strikes put patient safety at risk and didn’t “respect the bargaining process”, the real bargaining table has been taken away by the UCP. After all, how can unions and workers respect a bargaining process that no longer exists? 

Bill 47 is only the tip of the iceberg, fitting into a broader UCP agenda designed to crush labour standards and protections in the province, enact massive cuts across the board, and kill the potential for legal job action. Bill 1 makes most protests illegal, while Bill 32 undermines unions and collective bargaining rights, while making strikes and protests essentially illegal. The potential for legal challenges to the UCP is slim. Unions have launched countless legal challenges in the past, with almost no gains or wins achieved.

The UCP will continue to slash away at any and all jobs, regulations, labour rights, and promises that they see as limits to the profiteering of the bosses. The only way to protect ourselves, our jobs, and our public health services is to stand up against these attacks. Unions should be preparing the workers they represent for the possibility and inevitability of engaging in strike action, including illegal strikes, to challenge the undemocratic laws and fines that criminalize protests and strikes. Failing to resist this legislation paves the way for further anti-worker repression, and emboldens Kenney and the UCP. 

As we have said elsewhere, “If the right to strike has become illegal, then so be it: it would be better for the unions to break the law than for the law to break the unions, and public health care.” Workers from all industries and unions, youth and student activists, must actively and in an organized fashion oppose the UCP and their austerity. The Alberta Federation of Labour has launched the “Stand up To Kenney” campaign. Now is the time to join the fight and to build a powerful movement that can oppose the austerity of the UCP and bring down the Kenney government!

Stand up to Kenney!

Build towards a general strike!

Down with the UCP government!