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January 31, 2014 - No. 7

Time for a New Direction for Alberta

Organize for the People's Empowerment

Time for a New Direction for Alberta
Organize for the People's Empowerment
No to State-Organized Force and Violence to Impose Conditions of Employment
- Peggy Askin
Unions Affirm Workers' Rights and Launch Legal Challenge to Bill 45 and Labour Legislation - Peggy Morton 
Health Care Workers Confront Intransigent Provincial Government

Time for a New Direction for Alberta

Organize for the People's Empowerment

The Redford government's actions and revelations from testimony at the recent Alberta Labour Relations Board's hearings into anti-worker Bills 45 and 46 reveal what the government means by "negotiations" and "getting back to the bargaining table." Negotiations according to the government are only for purposes of trying to convince public sector workers to submit "voluntarily" to austerity, privatization and the wrecking of public services. The government threatens that any group within the public sector refusing to submit voluntarily to austerity and denial of rights will be hung out to dry and attacked with even more draconian conditions of work than now imposed.

Individual workers and their collectives are facing increasing state-organized violence to suppress their rights. Governments across Canada even attack the public authority of trade unions and their traditional role to bargain in good faith with employers to find agreement on terms of employment. Workers demand to know where governments are heading with this use of force and dictate.

If workers are denied peaceful discussions and negotiations to sort out arrangements regarding terms of employment and instead are met with state-organized force and dictate, what options and avenues of defence are left to the working class. This is a dangerous course for a supposed democracy to take. It predicts a time of constant disequilibrium in society.

Individual workers and their collectives do not want to be in constant battle with employers and their government representatives over terms of employment. Equilibrium in employment relations can be found based on recognition of the rights of the working class. For this to happen in Alberta, the government must take a first step by renouncing its Bills 45 and 46 and other acts of state violence and re-establish good faith bargaining with public sector workers over terms of employment and allow workers to express their individual and collective views effectively.

The refusal of this and other governments in Canada to uphold the rights of the working class is a sign that the direction of society is retrogressive and unacceptable. Governments do not reflect the popular will and are taking society down a dangerous path. The time for people's empowerment is now and the challenge for the working class is how to give its own empowerment a social form. TML calls on everyone concerned with the direction of society and their own empowerment to contact us to discuss and give concrete form to this struggle for the new.

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No to State-Organized Force and Violence Imposing Conditions of Employment

Alberta workers rally to denounce Bills 45 and 46 in Edmonton (top) and Calgary. (UNA, TML)

The Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) started and adjourned to a later date hearings into the bad faith bargaining complaint of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) against the government concerning Bill 46. The Public Service Salary Restraint Act (Bill 46) gave the government legal authority to cancel arbitration and impose a four-year-contract on 22,000 provincial public sector workers. The ALRB hearings on the complaint took place from January 8 to 10.

The Redford PC government claims that Bill 46 was a response to AUPE's decision to apply for arbitration after 12 days of bargaining. It states, "AUPE walked away from the table, but legislating an agreement is not our preferred approach" as the purpose of the bill was to "get back to the bargaining table." Such statements are transparently false as it is clear that the government was never prepared to engage in good faith bargaining but intent on imposing a wage freeze in line with its anti-social "austerity agenda."

The three days of hearings confirmed that the government never intended to carry out good faith negotiations. According to AUPE media releases dealing with the testimony of Peter Watson, deputy minister of the executive council, "Watson confirmed that in April 2013, a policy group was created to produce Bill 46. He also confirmed a mandate was set by the treasury and handed down to the government's bargaining committee. The mandate dictates a maximum wage proposal that fits within the Redford government's fiscal agenda. The wage proposal in the mandate is zero per cent for three years and two per cent in the fourth year.

"The disclosure by Watson of both the early construction of Bill 46, which legislates a deal and removes the right to arbitration for 22,000 government employees, and the dictated wage proposal, is proof in AUPE's opinion, that the government never had the intention to bargain in good faith."

This means that the government was busy writing legislation to cancel arbitration right at the outset of bargaining and had already decided on the terms of the settlement it intended to impose. It also embarked at that time on writing Bill 45 to define virtually any act of resistance as a strike and impose crippling financial penalties for any actions workers took to say no! to wages and working conditions they found unacceptable. The government intended that the two pieces of legislation (Bills 45 & 46) would remove all avenues open to the workers and their union so government could impose conditions of employment through state force.

AUPE says the forthcoming ALRB hearings will allow it to question Alberta's public service commissioner and demand Peter Watson answer questions. To this point according to the union, he has been "alarmingly opaque and vague."

During the testimony, Watson tried to downplay the fact that legislation was being planned months in advance saying that such a scenario is often the case. Legislation is prepared ahead and waiting in the wings in case it is needed, he said.

Watson considered the government's actions simply as business as usual and a normal practice to prepare legislation beforehand so that state force and violence could be quickly used to sort out arrangements in its relations with public sector workers and to impose terms of employment. Public sector workers and their allies across the country refuse to accept that legislated dictate and violent government extremism against the working class are the new normal.

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Unions Affirm Workers' Rights and Launch Legal Challenge to Bill 45 and Labour Legislation

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) recently launched separate Charter challenges to Bill 45, the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, the Alberta Labour Relations Act and the Public Services Employees Relations Act. These challenges are based on the Alberta government's violation of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, liberty and fundamental principles of justice.

A statement outlining the Charter challenges says Bill 45 violates the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an impartial and independent tribunal, the right to due process, and the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

Bill 45 was introduced without warning and rammed through the Legislature in one week in December 2013 allowing only two hours of debate at each stage of the bill. It imposes crippling financial penalties on public sector unions and their members who exercise their right to say no! to wages and working conditions imposed on them without their consent. The penalties can be imposed for a strike or strike threat. The legislation provides new definitions defining a strike or strike threat so broad that they could include a work to rule, a study session, or even a ban on overtime. Bill 45 also sets out punishment for anyone who "counsels" union members to take strike action.

The UNA states, "The broader definition of strike under Bill 45, coupled with a prohibition on activity that could 'reasonably be perceived as preparation for an employees' strike,' is so broad as to further restrict forthright and passionate discussion about workplace issues, political issues, social issues, and/or collective bargaining, including whether job action or withdrawal of labour should occur."

The Charter challenges affirm that workers have the right to organize into trade unions, join trade unions, engage in collective bargaining and good faith negotiations with the employer, engage in job action, strike, picket, and threaten to withdraw or withdraw their labour to achieve their collective goals.

Therefore, both the Labour Relations Code, which makes strikes illegal for Alberta government service workers, public sector health care workers and firefighters, and Bill 45, which expands the definition of a strike or strike threat and imposes penalties that are even more draconian are in contempt of these rights. The challenges also point out that the prohibition on strikes is made without any determination as to who is performing an essential service or any mechanism to make such a determination.

The same government contempt for the Legislature, which it showed in committing the crime of using its majority to pass these bills, is shown towards principles that have been considered fundamental to the rule of law.

Normal safeguards contained in the Alberta Rules of Court, which must be followed before a finding of civil contempt can be made are dispensed with. Huge fines in the form of administrative penalties can be imposed on unions, union officers and individual workers without notice and without a hearing. If the fine is not paid, the Minister can file a copy with the court, which then becomes enforceable as a court order, despite the fact that no hearing has taken place. What happened to the right to a trial?

Bill 45 is also in contempt of the right to be presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law. In order to avoid a dues suspension, unions and their officers have to meet three conditions contrary to the rule of law. They have to prove that the strike or strike threat occurred against the express instructions of the trade union, which must have been given prior to the strike or strike threat occurring, and that all the actions of the union and its officers have been consistent with the instructions.

The government says it can charge and find the union and its officers and representatives guilty of contravening the Act simply because they have previously been found guilty of contravening the Act. The Redford government has become so wild that it has enacted a law saying that if you are found guilty once, you are automatically guilty from then on and that any defence is useless because you are presumed guilty based on a previous conviction. What kind of law is this?!

The challenges also argue out why the legislation imposes penalties that are grossly disproportionate to the activity for which the penalties are imposed. For example, AUPE would be subject to a fine of $1.45 million per day in the event of a strike or strike threat. If a group of workers decided to vote in one week on whether to organize a slowdown, by the time the vote took place the union would be liable for penalties amounting to more than $10 million. They would also face a dues suspension for 10 months, amounting to $12.5 million. Individual workers and officers of the union could also be fined.

The use of state-organized force and violence against the working people is not new in Alberta or in Canada. Legislatures and Parliaments have ordered workers back to work time after time and deprived entire sectors of a legal right to say no! and to back up their no! with strike action. Injunctions and other measures are used to allow employers to use scab replacement workers while workers are criminalized for organizing an effective picket line.

Farm workers are not even allowed to join unions. Wage controls have been imposed through legislation. But Bill 45 shows that governments are now completely out of control. Its purpose is clearly to prevent the public sector unions from meaningfully representing their members, and to clear the way for more privatization and wrecking of public services. Private monopoly interests have directly usurped state authority and are prepared to use force and violence to suppress anyone who stands in their way.

Albertans are not going to stand for it! The extremist stands of the PCs that they will use force to impose their agenda of austerity and wrecking of public services cannot and will not be tolerated. The working people are showing their determination to put an end to the takeover of public institutions including government itself by the global energy cartels and other monopoly private interests. The political parties representing private monopoly interests can be defeated and the times are calling on everyone to rise to the challenge.

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Health Care Workers Confront
Intransigent Provincial Government

Collective agreements have expired or will expire by March 31 for more than 70,000 health care workers employed by Alberta Health Services (AHS). Health care workers employed by Covenant Health and other employers including long term care facilities are also expiring March 31.

The Redford government is intent on imposing wage freezes on the health care sector and to dictate changes in working conditions. The unions representing health care workers and their members have made it clear that they are not going to accept voluntarily the Redford government's anti-social austerity agenda of wage freezes and attacks on their working conditions. They are determined to defend their working conditions, which are the basic conditions of their patients and others needing health care and seniors' care.

Bill 46 authorized the violent state attack on the wages and working conditions of provincial government workers. Health care workers are determined to resist similar state-organized violence and extremist measures if unleashed against them.

United Nurses of Alberta

The collective agreement between the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) and AHS expired March 31, 2013. The UNA is holding town hall meetings across the province where nurses are discussing their concerns about the drastic changes to their provincial contract being demanded by AHS as well as the attacks on their pension plan. It was standing room only at the Edmonton town hall meeting held January 14, as nurses packed the hall to discuss their concerns. Their participation in large numbers shows their determination to defend their right to decide and to say No! to wages and working conditions imposed through force and dictate.

AHS' retrogressive assault on nurses' working conditions includes proposals that would take UNA members back to working conditions of the 1970s and 80s. AHS says it is determined to institute 12 hour schedules without union input and agreement. Instead, it says it will confront individual nurses with specific proposals leaving them open to pressure and intimidation tactics and without the strength of their collective.

Under the language AHS is dictating, once 12 hour shifts are in place, only the employer could end the arrangement. Nurses could also be forced to work a combination of 8 and 12 hours shifts, which the UNA points out gives nurses "the worst of both worlds." AHS is also trying to reduce time off between shifts and change the definition of a weekend. Other unilateral changes eliminate the guarantee of two complete days of rest between work periods and eliminate designated days off for part-time nurses.

AHS claims it wants to increase the number of full-time positions. If this is the case, why are so many casual, temporary and part-time jobs being posted across the province? In reality, AHS has reduced the number of full-time positions, and has plans to eliminate many nursing jobs and replace them with health care aides.

General Support Services Workers

General support services (GSS) workers at hospitals across Alberta, represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) are also in negotiations. Their contracts expire March 31, 2014. In 2012, GSS workers represented by AUPE walked out to protest the government's insulting wage offer when AHS made a new offer that was even less than what the mediator had recommended. The walkout started at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton and quickly spread across the province. The workers were subsequently able to negotiate a contract acceptable to themselves with a three per cent increase in each of the three years of the contract.

The contract for professional and technical health care staff represented by the Health Sciences Association of Alberta also expires on March 31, 2014.

The Necessity for Organized Resistance to Retrogression

Bills 45 and 46 were enacted to cut off all options for provincial government employees to achieve a settlement through collective bargaining. The Redford government has declared that it is no longer interested in peaceful negotiations to achieve an agreement that aims towards mutual benefit.

The government will likely use shock and awe tactics as it did in December against public sector workers. U.S. military strategy defines the components of shock and awe as the use of direct force, selective denial of information and dissemination of disinformation, overwhelming combat force and rapidity of action. The tactics of the Redford government as seen this past December are the polar opposite of trying to find and come to a new collective agreement by ensuring a calm atmosphere where all those concerned and their collectives can consciously participate and discuss what is going on with complete information without being bombarded with disinformation, and within such a situation feel fully involved in taking a decision and voting on it with a clear conscience.

Through continuing rallies, mass meetings and other means, health care workers are making it clear that they are not going to stand for the Redford tactics of shock and awe and will not be intimidated or silenced. The next two months are crucial for health care workers. The Legislature begins again on March 3, at which time the government will open the session with a Speech from the Throne followed by an anti-social budget and its legislated austerity agenda to attack workers and the public interest. The time is now for health care workers to strengthen their collective ranks and determination to defend their rights from this intransigent retrogressive government.

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