September 20, 2021 - No. 85

Matters of Concern to Workers Which Governments
and Elections Fail to Address

The Government Is Not Protecting Workers' Pensions

What the Deteriorating Conditions in Alberta Reveal - Kevan Hunter
Rule by Decree Will Only Deepen Health Care Crisis in Saskatchewan
- Barbara Biley

Matters of Concern to Workers Which Governments and
Elections Fail to Address

The Government Is Not Protecting
Workers' Pensions

United Steelworkers Local 9700 represents workers at the ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Quebec.

My deep discomfort with this election and the way it is taking place is that workers, or voters, the majority of whom are workers, are being used as pawns for propaganda purposes, as a polling statistic, so that parties can come to power or remain in power. Workers are not listened to. Their needs are not taken into account. We are going in the opposite direction of what the people are demanding of their governments. If one follows the debates, one can see the extent to which the election is disconnected and far removed from our needs and concerns.

One of the serious concerns of workers is the defence of their pension plans. For example, for years now the United Steelworkers and other unions have been demanding that workers and their pension plans be amongst the first secured creditors when companies declare bankruptcy. Many workers have lost 30 or even 40 per cent or more of their pension plan in such cases. This problem has persisted for many years and is still not resolved.

A serious problem we face is that Canadian laws do not properly regulate the activities of companies. For example, let's take the case of Aleris, the aluminum transformation plant that was located in Cap-de-la-Madeleine here in Trois-Rivières. Aleris was a subsidiary of the multinational of the same name in the United States, but it was an independent legal entity in Canada. What happened was that the U.S. multinational siphoned off the profits and left the pension plans of Canadian workers with deficits. The government allowed it to avoid paying back the pension deficits. For years the profits went to the parent company, which still exists. In 2009, the Canadian entity was declared bankrupt. The U.S. multinational did not recognize any obligation to the Canadian workers, who lost their severance pay and a huge portion of their pension plan. I know two former Aleris workers, one with 28 years of service and the other with 25, and they each lost 42 per cent of their pension plan. And this was all declared legal. These are the responsibilities that companies are walking away from, either legally or at times through coercion.

We are in the same situation here at ABI. The ABI aluminum smelter is owned by the foreign multinationals Alcoa and Rio Tinto. However, it is considered an independent Canadian entity. If tomorrow morning, for example, the aluminum market collapses and Alcoa and Rio Tinto decide to place it into bankruptcy, they will not be held responsible for what happens to the workers at ABI. Alcoa and Rio Tinto will not be required to pay back the deficits.

Companies that come to invest here in Quebec and Canada are familiar with Canadian laws and know that they do not protect Canadian workers. Often they come and set up here, take grants, and the entity they establish is declared by law to be independent even though it is not. Everyone knows that these entities are owned by the multinationals and that they are the ones making the decisions. The Canadian government does not legislate strictly enough to defend workers. This is what we have been denouncing for a long time and must change. It's a problem that the Canadian government does not want to deal with.

And during the election, this problem is not even raised.

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What the Deteriorating Conditions in Alberta Reveal

The Kenney government has finally emerged from hiding to bring in a number of measures just as our health care workers, hospitals and ICUs are at the breaking point. Our schools, on the other hand, have largely been left to fend for themselves.

Alberta right now has the highest rates of COVID-19 in all of North America. At this moment, a person is required to isolate if they are sick or have a positive test, that's it. But one can't get a COVID-19 test unless symptoms are considered serious, or are linked to an outbreak, which is not the same as having been in close contact with a person who has tested positive. All this, while only 61 per cent of the 72 per cent of the population aged 12 years and older are fully vaccinated.

We now know that fully vaccinated people can still spread COVID-19 but are frequently asymptomatic, and this is the same for kids. This means that testing of people who are asymptomatic has never been more important. Instead of acting on this, the government has reduced testing to only those with serious symptoms. The hotels where people could isolate if needed to keep their families safe have been closed. Employers are not obliged to pay sick time. The government lurches from offering $100 to people to get vaccinated (a total failure), to vaccine passports, while the real need to institute all-sided protective measures and adequate staffing and wages and working conditions for everyone is ignored.

As for our schools, the Alberta government posted a map showing those that had outbreaks but the link is broken. Teachers and parents are getting information from Support Our Students, a public education advocacy organization of volunteers, which reports that there were at least 59 schools on outbreak status as of September 18. An outbreak is declared when 10 per cent or more of the students in a school are absent with a respiratory illness.

When there is an outbreak, parents get an email letting them know. Only then are students and staff able to get tested.

When cases reach the point where ICUs are on the verge of being completely overwhelmed, a switch is flipped and various things are closed. When COVID-19 cases return to some arbitrary acceptable level, they open up again.

On top of this, Alberta teachers have hanging over their heads a new curriculum which has been almost universally rejected. School boards will not pilot it. Teachers have absolutely rejected it. Tens of thousands of people have joined online groups to discuss what kind of curriculum is needed. They are demanding that the United Conservative Party's racist, xenophobic, anti-democratic, sloppy, plagiarized, unprofessional curriculum, which was cobbled together in a manner that suggests those writing it never actually met a child, be declared dead and buried.

Demonstration at the Alberta legislation, September 11, 2021 against proposed new curriculum.

We can sum up the situation like this. Those who have shown themselves unfit to govern continue to use their police or arbitrary powers in a manner that endangers the lives of Albertans, while the workers continue to make herculean efforts to keep everyone safe, and to demand the measures they need but have no power to institute. Wherever and whenever they can, workers are actually taking on the functions of the public authority, identifying problems and providing solutions. But the need is for political renewal so that workers can speak and act in their own name, not for them to shoulder the burden of crisis management which thirty years of the anti-social offensive have proven is not sustainable.

This is precisely why we are experiencing the current crisis of the neo-liberal system: the working people can no longer shoulder the burden of absorbing the anarchy, chaos and violence that the rulers and their cartel parties and state agencies have imposed on society as a result of their pay-the-rich schemes and arrangements.

The pandemic is further revealing the need for democratic renewal. More and more it is giving rise to the working people speaking out in their own names on this need so that they can institute the measures required to cope with this crisis. They cannot continue to step into the breach where the government is failing to do its duty.

It is the health care workers, teachers, packing house workers, postal workers, retail workers, oil workers, farmers, along with Indigenous peoples and others who work to make a living who have shown they can be trusted to act in defence of the rights of all. Why would we want to put decision-making in someone else's hands? Having problems is not new. What we need are measures which empower the people so that they can provide these problems with solutions which favour them, not the rich.

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Rule by Decree Will Only Deepen
Health Care Crisis in Saskatchewan

Rally against re-imposition of Minister's Order under emergency powers which mandates redeployment of health care workers, September 14, 2021.

Health care workers in Saskatchewan are speaking out against the government imposing a ministerial order under its emergency powers which will once again allow it to redeploy thousands of health care workers from their normal jobs. The emergency order reinstated a Letter of Understanding previously negotiated between the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and unions which expired in July.

The Saskatchewan Government and General Workers Union (SGEU), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) -- West, which together represent over 30,000 health care workers, denounced the government decree which was imposed in the midst of negotiations between the unions and SHA for an updated Letter of Understanding.

The previous Letter of Understanding, reached through negotiations, addressed the situation in the early stages of the pandemic. It expired in July when the province lifted the public health order and removed all pandemic restrictions and measures. Negotiations to renew the Letter of Understanding to meet the current conditions started on September 9 but the next day the government threatened to issue an emergency order on September 13 that would impose the previously negotiated Letter of Understanding, which it did.

SEIU-West pointed out in a statement issued September 15, that since July when all public health measures were ended vaccinations rates have stalled and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have increased to record levels. Negotiations for a new Letter of Understanding were needed to address the changed situation where "health care workers of all types have faced unprecedented workloads with many staff suffering burnout and chronic fatigue. Negotiations for a new [Letter of Understanding] would have provided labour mobility while proactively addressing the issues health care workers endure in their provision of care."

The president of the SGEU, Tracey Sauer said, "It's unacceptable for the premier to refuse to enact even the most basic, common-sense measures like indoor masking for the general public, yet he's more than willing to demand additional sacrifices from health care workers who have already gone above and beyond during extreme conditions over the past 18 months."

The province did finally reinstate mask mandates on September 16.

Neil Colmin, SEIU-West Vice-President said that "it's clear the premier is blaming and threatening health care providers for the pressures in the health care system caused by his government's inaction."

The Saskatchewan Government’s  press release of September 13 says the Minister's Order was issued because the needs of the health care system are "urgent and immediate" and concludes with the statement of Health Minister Paul Merriman that "We appreciate the leadership of the SHA, affiliates, unions and all health care workers and know they are all committed to continue problem solving and working together to meet the challenge of the pandemic."

The fact is that health care workers and staff cannot continue to shoulder the burden of the crisis of the system because they can no longer manage to do so. They are burned out. For the Minister to thank them is to encourage them to continue doing what is not sustainable and thus does not solve any problem facing the health care system. It also creates a diversion which suggests that if the workers do not follow the arbitrarily imposed rules, they are not being cooperative, helpful and so on. It is unacceptable. It is the conditions which clash with the authority. The authority is out of line. 

It is government actions, including Minister's Orders, which are the block to "problem solving and working together to meet the challenge of the pandemic." Health care workers' needs have to be met so that they can provide the care that people need. Throughout the pandemic they have gone above and beyond to meet their social responsibility to protect the public. The same cannot be said of the Saskatchewan government.

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