January 29, 2020

Opposition to Criminalization of Regina Co-op Workers' Struggle

Broad Support for the Just Stand of
Federated Co-operative Workers
in Defence of Their Pensions

Delegation of Unifor 594 workers from Co-op Refinery meet with the mayor of Regina to discuss their just demands, January 24, 2020.

The Fight of Public Sector Workers in Alberta
A Resounding No! to Demands for Massive Rollbacks and Wage Freeze for Alberta Nurses
Alberta Public Sector Workers Continue to Build Resistance to Kenney's Wrecking Ball - Peggy Morton
Ongoing Fight for Adequate Staffing and Safe Work Places - Peggy Askin
Hold Governments Responsible for Deaths of Women Care Workers! Not One More Death!

Opposition to Criminalization of Regina Co-op Workers' Struggle

Broad Support for the Just Stand of
Federated Co-operative Workers
in Defence of Their Pensions

Canadian president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Rob Ashton, on Regina picket line, January 25, 2020.

Workers from many different unions from across the country have joined the members of Unifor Local 594 on the picket line at the Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) Refinery in Regina in the past week. Statements in support of the workers' bargaining demands and condemning the police violence against the workers that occurred on January 20 have come from the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, the Canadian Labour Congress, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Federation of Nurses, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and others. The over 800 refinery workers have been locked out since December 5, two days after the union served strike notice. The company has been continuing to operate using replacement workers and management had been granted an interim injunction which said that striking workers could only stop vehicles entering or leaving the refinery for ten minutes. On January 20 Unifor members from across the country joined the picket line to prevent any movement into or out of the facility. Regina police violently attacked the picket line and arrested 14 people. On January 22 Court of Queen's Bench Justice Timothy Keene found Unifor in contempt of the injunction and fined the union $100,000.

Members of the Alberta Union of Public Employees (left) and United Nurses of Alberta join Co-op refinery workers' picket lines.

What is at issue in the determined fight of the Regina Co-op workers is their longstanding defined benefit pension plan. The company has declared that the existing defined benefit pension plan is not "sustainable" and demands that the workers make a "choice" between a plan that significantly increases what the workers contribute to the plan and/or replaces the current plan with a defined contribution plan. In refusing to make this concession the refinery workers are defending not only their own rights but the rights of all in the face of a concerted attack on pensions by employers, both in the private and public sectors, and on the part of the federal government in terms of legislation on workers' pensions when corporations file for bankruptcy, and the Canada Pension Plan.

In a modern Canada pensions are a right that belongs to workers by virtue of their contributions to the economy. In fact, all Canadians have a right to pensions which provide security in retirement by virtue of being human. In a modern socialized economy government has a social responsibility to guarantee pensions for all. As part of the anti-social offensive employers and government are attacking workers' rights not only to adequate pensions, but also to maintain their already negotiated working conditions, including pensions. Employers do so on the grounds that in order to be competitive they must deprive the working class of even more of the value that its labour produces, and governments on the basis that it is the claims of the rich and not the people that it must satisfy. In recent years the pensions of many workers, including municipal workers in Labrador, Quebec City, Saskatoon, and industrial workers in many sectors, have come under attack and the working class is well aware that it is the right of all to security in retirement that is under attack. The fight of the Regina Co-op workers to defend their pensions is a fight for pensions for all.

On January 24 striking workers and their supporters set up a secondary picket at the FCL fuel terminal in Carseland, Alberta, stopping fuel trucks from entering and exiting with fuel destined for Co-op gas bars in Alberta and British Columbia. The workers are demanding that FCL return to the bargaining table and negotiate a collective agreement that is acceptable to them and which cannot contain the destruction of the already agreed to pension plan. The company has said that it will not return to the bargaining table as long as the union is "breaking the law" and preventing movement into and out of the refinery to which the union has responded that it will take down the barricades when the company stops using scabs to keep the refinery operating.

Workers from different sectors and regions join Co-op refinery workers in secondary picketing at Co-op Refinery location in Carseland, photos from January 24, 2020.

The company is relying on the court injunction and police violence to portray the striking workers as criminals to confuse public opinion and diminish support for the workers. It is also trying to split the working class, saying that because an increasing number of workers in Canada have been forced to accept pensions that are inferior to those of the refinery workers, the refinery workers should be "fair" and agree to an inferior plan. In response, the mass mobilization of workers from all sectors to stand with the Co-op workers is the expression of the unity of the working class in action in defence of workers' pensions and the rights of all to security in retirement.

(Photos: Unifor 594, AUPE, UNA)

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The Fight of Public Sector Workers in Alberta

A Resounding No! to Demands for Massive
Rollbacks and Wage Freeze for Alberta Nurses

Rally at University of Alberta hospital, January 25, 2020.

United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) reports that negotiations began for a new Provincial Collective Agreement between themselves and Alberta Health Services (AHS) on January 15. The AHS quickly tabled a host of "proposals" attacking nurses' wages and conditions of work. The AHS is demanding a four-year wage freeze for nurses, who have not received an increase since 2016. UNA's opening proposal called for 2 per cent pay increases in each of two years.

Instead of ending hiring freezes, filling vacant positions, and ensuring adequate staffing to guarantee the well-being of both patients and staff, the AHS wants to eliminate designated days of rest for part-time employees, be able to force part-time employees to work up to full-time hours, cut overtime rates, and move nurses around to multiple work sites as they please. Other proposals include eliminating premiums for employees with bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees, slashing evening, night and weekend premiums, and slowing advancement of employees up the salary grid, which now takes nine years to achieve the maximum pay grade.

The Kenney government has concocted something called the "the Ontario-West Standard," intended to divert people from the issue which is the government's wrecking, by claiming that Alberta is "spending too much" on health care compared to other provinces. The aim is to divert from the claims which people are laying for their right to health care, and the right of the workers who provide that care to wages and working conditions commensurate with their work and contribution to society. Although the AHS is at the table the Kenney government is controlling every move, not only of AHS but every employer in the province who receives any level of public funding, and has even made it illegal for an employer to divulge the instructions it has received from the government.

These outrageous demands by the UCP government are accompanied by threats of massive job losses through privatization, and cuts to nursing jobs across the province.

Nurses and other health care workers are upholding their social responsibility when they refuse to submit to this anti-social offensive and use of arbitrary powers and dictate in place of negotiations. The Canadian Nurses Association points out that, "Global evidence links lower nurse staffing and skill mix to adverse patient outcomes such as increased mortality, falls, infections and longer lengths of stay." The anti-social offensive of the Kenney government, if successful, would worsen already unsustainable working conditions, and degrade patient care.

As for "saving money" the intent of the Kenney government is clear. As a government of the financial oligarchy, its aim is not to provide for the needs of the people of Alberta, but to maximize the profits of the financial oligarchy. This is why it has announced that it will introduce more health care based on the motive of private profit. In this way the wealth created by the working people and claimed by government is handed over to the rich. Also, funding withdrawn from health care goes to pay the rich.

UNA President Heather Smith gave a fitting response. "The last time the employer proposed rollbacks of this magnitude was in 1988, and we all know what happened after that," she said. Smith was referring to the last province-wide strike of Alberta nurses which took place in 1988.[1] One of the defining features of the 1988 strike was the determination to uphold the principle that nurses had a right to decide what wages and working conditions were acceptable to them, a stand which won massive public support.


1. In 1988, more than 14,000 nurses at 98 hospitals across Alberta went out on strike. The Alberta government had made strikes in public health care facilities illegal following the 1982 nurses' strike. For nineteen days nurses stood as one to say No! to rollbacks and concessions. The government launched attack after attack to break their resistance. Holding a strike vote was declared an illegal act, UNA was charged with "criminal contempt of court," and threatened with $1 million in fines, seizure of the union's assets, and an end to dues collection. Individual nurses were served with civil contempt of court charges, fines, and threats of termination. In the end UNA was forced to pay $424,000 in fines, which it did through the support of the union movement. But nurses stood firm, and when they returned to work after 19 days their collective agreement remained intact.

Rally during Alberta nurses strike which began January 25, 1988.

(Photos: AUPE, UNA)

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Alberta Public Sector Workers Continue to Build Resistance to Kenney's Wrecking Ball

Alberta nurses noon-hour rally in Claresholm, January 21, 2020.

Noon-hour rallies were held in Edmonton, Lethbridge and Claresholm during the week of January 20, where health care and other public sector workers were joined by workers from other unions and members of their community. They spoke out against the government's threats to privatize large sectors of public services, and demanded that the government improve, not wreck, health care and other public services. They also expressed their resounding No! to attacks on their wages and working conditions.

The UCP government has said it will reduce the number of workers in the public sector by more than seven per cent by 2023. In late November, the government sent letters to the unions representing public sector workers saying that it is looking at contracting out a wide swath of public services, from ambulance services and public medical labs to hospital housekeeping and laundry services, medical transcription, home care nursing, and jobs in social and community services. This would be a potential loss of 6,400 to 7,400 unionized public-sector jobs by 2023, including between 3,900 and 4,900 in health care.

In a recent interview with CTV Edmonton, Kenney stated, "Nobody is being laid off now, let's be clear about that. These are prospective reductions in employment levels over four years if we can't find other savings."

The intent of such statements seems clear. Kenney is suggesting that privatization is a form of "saving money" and that if the workers submit to the intensified assault on their wages and working conditions, thus "saving money," he might spare public services from his privatization wrecking ball.

The working people of Alberta have been down this road before, and learned through bitter experience that it is fraud and blackmail from start to finish. The workers are pointing out that the government is serving big business with its threats to privatize. Privatization has nothing to do with "saving money" and it never did. It is a way of transferring more of the wealth created by the workers and claimed by governments into the hands of rich private interests. Privatization of public services carried out during the Klein years actually reduced government revenues, as the added-value created by workers was handed over to private interests (for example registry offices and liquor stores). The Klein government then used falling revenues as a pretext to step up the assault on public services and the workers who deliver them.

Through their pickets, the workers are taking the lead to unite their own ranks and to develop public opinion for a pro-social program which defends the rights of all. In opposition to the aim of maximum profit for the financial oligarchy, a new direction for the economy to serve the needs of the people is needed. Workers' Forum calls on the working people to discuss with their peers what is at stake, and to join the pickets and rallies in their communities.

Health care workers picket in the Peace River region against cuts, January 22, 2020.

(Photos: AUPE)

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Ongoing Fight for Adequate Staffing
and Safe Workplaces

Rally at Calgary City Hall, November 17, 2019, demands justice for Debbie Onwu who was killed
on the job in October 2019.

Care workers in Alberta have carried out a protracted fight for safe working conditions, in the face of the indifference of successive governments. Since the early 2000s four women care workers have suffered violent deaths in their workplaces in Alberta. Most recently, Debbie Onwu lost her life on October 25, 2019 while working in a group home for youth with mental health problems operated by Wood's Homes.

After Debbie's tragic death, youth care-workers, former youth-care workers, and their union began organizing to demand justice for Debbie and to prevent future tragedies. On November 17 2019, friends, family, and co-workers from CUPE Local 4731, together with workers from other CUPE locals and unions rallied at Calgary City Hall to demand justice for Debbie Onwu. All the speakers and everyone at the rally demanded that the government take action to provide the needed supports for care workers to ensure their safety in the workplace. They also demanded appropriate facilities for both youth and adults with complex care needs.

"Please do not ignore us. The abuse of staff within various agencies needs to stop now because our lives matter and we will no longer tolerate the bullying and the abuse," said Rebecca Opoku, a social worker and friend of Onwu. Friends at the rally asked those in attendance to reach out to their MLAs to bring the issue to the surface. "Debbie doesn't have a voice anymore, but we do," Opoku said. "It's not OK for us to die in our line of work."

Ivana Niblett, United Steelworkers representative also addressed the rally. "Our efforts today, in solidarity and in Debbie Onwu's name, are to increase safety standards and regulations for all employees who may be potentially at risk, especially those working with high risk populations in a variety of roles," she said. "No one should ever have to go to work and wonder if they will arrive home safely to their loved ones at the end of the day. Let's get justice for Debbie!"

A spokesperson for CUPE Alberta explained that part of the problem is the lack of support for vulnerable youth who are in care. "In our society, they don't want to focus on vulnerable people and we don't want to focus on people who need the most intensive kind of help," said Rory Gill, the president of CUPE Alberta.

Debbie Onwu was working the night shift when she died, and was alone with a severely mentally disabled man who is charged with her murder. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, who represents the workers at Wood's Homes, reports that the man was classified as requiring at least a 2-1 ratio of care, had complex mental health needs and a history of violence. At the time of her death, her co-worker had been called to another floor. Lou Arab, communications representative for CUPE Alberta Division, told media that the union had been raising concerns about staffing levels and safety issues for years. He said funding and the work environment need improvements.

Debbie was the fourth woman care worker to be killed while at work in Alberta since the early 2000's. Sharla Collier, a 20-year-old care worker from Lethbridge, was sexually assaulted and killed by a youth in her care in 2002. Camrose care worker Valerie Wolski, 41, was killed by a youth in her care in 2011. Another Camrose care worker, Dianne McClements, 61, was killed in 2012 by a youth in her care while working in a home run by Camrose Community Connections. In all these tragic deaths, like Debbie Onwu, the women were alone when they were killed.

Erin Northey, a former youth caseworker who has launched a petition demanding action from the province, said she knows first-hand the dangers of working with vulnerable populations. While working in a high-risk environment in 2016, she was assaulted by a client and suffered a concussion, resulting in post-concussion syndrome, anxiety and PTSD. She counts herself lucky that she made it out with her life.

"It's time for change," said Northey. "We're demanding action." The petition "Demanding Action for Increased Safety of Individuals Working in High Risk Environments" now has close to 14,000 signatures. It can be found here. Northey emphasizes front-line workers know what changes are needed, and governments need to listen to them. Everything from funding, legislation and resources for employees transitioning back into the sector should be evaluated, she said.

It is unconscionable that care workers, social workers and all the dedicated and skilled workers in this challenging field are not provided with the resources and safe working conditions that they need to perform their work. The workers and professionals in this field are invaluable to society and vital to the healing and well-being of those they care for. They know what is needed and they have the right to working conditions which they decide will provide a safe environment so that they do not face injury and death in their workplaces. Nothing less is acceptable.

(Photos: I. Niblett, K. Ka-Pow)

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Hold Governments Responsible for Deaths of
Women Care Workers! Not One More Death!

Two public inquiries have taken place in Alberta into the deaths of women care workers at their workplaces. They reveal the utter refusal by governments to provide what is needed to ensure the safety of women providing care for youth and adults with complex needs, and the well-being of those they care for. At the heart of the matter is the escalating anti-social offensive and determination to slash funding for social programs including the care of the severely developmentally disabled, and those with mental illnesses.

Group homes have become the model for youth in care, irrespective of whether it is suitable or beneficial to them or whether care can be provided safely. Group homes may be run by community-based organizations on a "not-for-private-profit" basis or by companies established with the motive of private profit. Most care workers are women, and the public inquiries were told that it is too difficult to recruit men for such low wages. These women look after vulnerable youth, and severely developmentally disabled adults, often alone and without back-up. The families and loved ones of the women who died all spoke of their dedication to their job and concern for the youth or young adults they cared for.

The small numbers of residents and staff in each home and large number of agencies and organizations involved make it difficult for staff to organize, and render the residents and staff less "visible." Most of the staff are unorganized and many are paid poverty-level wages, with staff shortages and lack of resources the norm. This model also makes it more difficult for families to advocate, as they did so successfully in forcing the Alberta government to back down and keep the Michener Centre open. The province has contracted out care as a means to divest itself of responsibility to provide safe working conditions and the conditions those in care require.

Findings of the Public Inquiries into Deaths of Care Workers

In 2002, Sharla Marie Collier, age 20, was sexually assaulted and killed by a youth in her care while they were alone. A Public Fatality Inquiry into Collier's death was held in 2007 and a report issued in 2008, six years after her death. In his report, Justice Lloyd P. Malin recommended that care workers should only be assigned to the care of a resident that the care worker can physically manage. He also stressed that all records about a resident must be available to care workers, and that specific training be provided about the conditions of residents under their care. He noted that the province's Occupational Health and Safety regulations on working alone did not address the situation of care workers working with potentially violent persons. Eighteen years after the death of Sharla, this is still the case.

Youth care worker Valerie Wolski was killed in 2011. Six years later, in 2017, the report of the Public Fatality Inquiry into her death, written by Judge Bart Rosborough, was released. In the intervening period, another care worker, Diane McClement, 61, had been killed in 2012 while working in a home run by Camrose Community Connections. A youth in her care was charged with her murder. No public inquiry was called. At the time, Occupational Health and Safety would not even confirm if it was conducting an investigation. The government never issued a public report regarding her death.

When the report of the inquiry into Wolski's death was finally released, the culpability of the government was staggering. Wolski had agreed to take on the care of a young man who was profoundly developmentally disabled at a home under the management of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Neither Wolski or the CMHA were informed that he had a history of violent behaviour, particularly towards women care workers, or provided an accurate history or assessment of his care needs. In fact they were provided completely misleading information, such as that the young man was a "teddy bear." Indeed, staff from the CMHC stated they would not have taken on his care if they had been aware of the history of violence, as they were not equipped to do so.

Justice Rosborough referenced the Collier Report and repeated its recommendations. He wrote that "it would appear obvious that a diminutive Individual Supports Worker such as Wolski ought not to have been assigned responsibility for the care of a young and very large man" (who was 6'5" and between 250-300 pounds), particularly when a history of violent acts existed. The report repeated the recommendations of the Collier Report, and further that female care workers should not be assigned the exclusive care of residents who have previously expressed or demonstrated aggression toward females.

The Report further noted that the underlying theme permeating the inquiry was that the government had no facilities suitable for the care of developmentally disabled persons with complex needs. Many people who testified spoke about this failure of the government, and noted the government's determination to close the Michener Centre and impose a group home model even when totally inadequate and unsuitable. Justice Rosborough concluded that there was no community resource available to the government Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) program that was capable of providing the level of safety required.

Judge Rosborough asked whether Valerie Wolski would still be alive if the recommendations of the earlier Collier Report had been implemented. Try as he and the Inquiry Counsel might, they could not find out what, if anything, the government had done in response to the earlier public inquiry. He made the understated point that if experienced counsel and a judge appointed under the Fatalities Inquiry Act can't get information, it is unlikely that anyone could. There are no requirements in Alberta for governments to make public their response to a fatality inquiry. Reports of fatality inquiries can simply be put on a shelf and forgotten. Is this still the case after four women have died?

Back in 2012, Occupational Health and Safety found PDD to have violated Health and Safety Standards and issued compliance orders requiring PDD to take measures to protect workers from the danger associated with working with high risk individuals. But these orders do not change the fact that Occupational Health and Safety directives about working alone do not address care workers in group homes or similar situations. The danger to their health and safety remains.

Working women are taking the lead to demand Not One More Death! and to hold the government responsible for its refusal to do everything needed to ensure the safety of women care workers. Their lives are precious, not expendable! Working women are taking the lead through their actions on the basis that It is Up to Us! to organize to fight to bring about the needed changes.

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