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
United Steelworkers Local 9700 represents workers at the ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Quebec.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
against re-imposition of Minister's Order under emergency powers which
mandates redeployment of health care workers, September 14, 2021.
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."
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
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
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