On June 3, 2005, Alberta earned the distinction of being only the second province in Canada to allow 12 year-olds to work in restaurants without a special permit. It did this without consultation, without debate and without informing Albertans about its potential impacts.
Alberta has also earned itself the dubious distinction of being in contravention of the International Labour Organization's Convention #138. This convention is supposed to help prevent child labour in under-developed nations. It says that for general occupations, the minimum age of employment should be 15 years of age, and 13 years of age for "light work". Regardless of whether one considers serving tables "light work", the new rules contravene the ILO Convention. (Unfortunately, Canada refuses to ratify this convention, meaning there is no way to enforce its provisions.)
The question Albertans need to ask is "how young is too young?" Do we want our children working in kitchens and serving tables at the ages of 12, 13 or 14? What does a law permitting 12 year-olds to work in restaurants say about our priorities as a province?
These are valid questions - questions the government has few good answers for. The government claims the change was a technicality, not really changing things for adolescents in Alberta. In one respect they are right, but they are missing a much bigger picture.
Before June 3, a restaurant owner could apply to the government for a permit to employ adolescents. This system, while not ideal and needing to be revoked, at least provided two layers of protection for the child. First, the government had an opportunity to review the employer's record. Do they abide by employment standards rules? What is their safety record?
Second, they had the opportunity to send an inspector to the workplace to check up on the employer, to make sure they were meeting the requirements of the permit. These checks could at least prevent the worst excesses of some bad employers.
The government admits they never did this, and had become a rubber stamp for permit applications. This is not a reason to scrap the permits. It is a desperate call to enhance enforcement of Employment Standards. The government responds to its indefensible inaction by loosening rules, not tightening enforcement.
Under the new system, even those two protections disappear. Now any restaurant owner can hire adolescents without asking government approval. This means the government will no longer have any clue where the children needing protection are. You can't help someone you can't find.
More importantly, the government is sending a message to employers. The permit system created a series of hoops to be jumped that made hiring 12 year-olds the exception, rather than the norm. Creating an industry-wide exemption says that hiring adolescents is business as usual.
The government acknowledges that the restaurant industry is one of its most problematic. It receives more complaints about employment standards violations than any other industry. Why are we giving a carte blanche to employers who can't demonstrate they know how to treat adults fairly, let only kids?
This is quite simply not acceptable. In a province as rich as ours, we do not need to send our kids out to work at such a young age.
The big picture the government is missing is that as a democratic society, we get to decide what our bottom lines are. And I would suggest most Albertans would agree 12 years-old is too young to work in a restaurant. That is our bottom line.
What can we do about it now, you might ask? Good question.
This change was made without consulting Albertans, but it was also made without the knowledge of our provincial politicians. Most MLAs had no idea this exemption was made. I believe it is time for them, as our elected representatives, to weigh in. They have a right to demand the decision be reversed. And you have a right to phone your MLA to demand that they do this.
Albertans concerned about 12 year-olds working in restaurants need to phone their local MLA, ask them if they knew about this, and demand they push to reverse the decision. Tell them 12 years-old is too young to work in restaurants.
If we band together, we might be able to protect our kids.
Byline: Gil McGowan
Policy paper adopted at the 44th Constitution Convention, May 12 - 15, 2005
In yesterday's Throne Speech, the Alberta government announced plans to review the province's often controversial Employment Standards Code -- the law that sets minimum standards for things like overtime, vacations, minimum wage and hours of work.
But while many people agree that changes are long overdue, the Alberta Federation of Labour fears a review of the Code under the direction of the current government may simply make a bad situation worse.
"This is the same government that is seriously considering a tearing up its own Human Rights legislation in order to satisfy the whims of a few big oil companies that want the right to impose mandatory drug testing on their workers," says AFL president Kerry Barrett.
"What concerns us is that this review will end up being yet another example of the government bending over backward to satisfy the demands of employers. And, yet again, the interests of working people will be ignored in the process."
In particular, Barrett worries that the government may decide to change rules on overtime -- so that employers can require their employees to work longer hours without overtime pay.
"That's exactly what the government of Conservative Premier Mike Harris did in Ontario a five years ago when they introduced a 60-hour work week," says Barrett. "Unfortunately, this kind of change is probably exactly what the government means when they say the Code needs to be made more 'current and relevant.'"
The impact of watered-down rules on overtime will be particularly harmful here in Alberta, says Barrett, because Albertans work more hours and put in more overtime (both paid and unpaid) than workers in any other province.
"Extending the work week or giving employers other ways to weasel out of paying overtime will hit many working Albertans hard," says Barrett. "It has the potential to take a really big bite out of the budgets of thousands and thousands of families."
Instead of weakening Employment Standards protections, Barrett says the government should focus on beefing up enforcement of existing rules.
"The biggest problem with Employment Standards today is not the wording of the Code," says Barrett. "Instead, it's the fact that the onus is always on employees to complain. The government almost never launches its own investigations. And even when employers are found guilty of violations, they rarely face more than a stern warning and a slap on the wrist. That kind of weak-kneed approach to enforcement is what really has to change in this province."
For more information call
Kerry Barrett, AFL President @ (780) 720-8945 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ (780) 483-3021 (work)
Changing human rights legislation to allow random drug testing is shortsighted, ill-conceived and potentially dangerous, says the Alberta Federation of Labour. The AFL was responding to reports of a report, leaked to media late last week, which recommends changing human rights legislation to allow employers to impose random drug and alcohol testing in their workplaces.
"The drive to force random drug and alcohol testing is occurring without reason, thought or consideration of other options," says AFL President Kerry Barrett. "Employers have become intoxicated by the idea of a quick fix solution. I fear that the casualty in this stampede will be the basic human rights of workers."
"Human rights are not something to be thrown aside just because they happen to be 'inconvenient' for employers," says Barrett. "Last time I checked, human rights laws were in place in part to prevent employers from running roughshod over their workers."
"This issue is not about intoxication on the job. That is a clear safety hazard and needs to be opposed. This issue is about what is the most effective way to prevent it - and random testing is not it."
Barrett points out there are two issues involved with random testing. First, Canada has a well-established "Duty to Accommodate" requirement for workers with disabilities.
Addiction to alcohol or drugs is considered a disability. This means employers need to assist workers with substance abuse problems to beat their addiction - rather than just fire them. "This is the best approach - it treats workers as full human beings, not just pieces of machinery to be disposed when needing repair."
Second, all workers have a right to a degree of privacy. Employers are only allowed to know information that is directly relevant to the workplace.
"What a person does on the weekend is none of the boss's business, and they need to keep their nose out of it."
This arrangement may frustrate some employers, but that is not a good enough reason to scrap longstanding rights, says Barrett.
"Employers have failed to make the case why the current regime needs to be changed," says Barrett. "Court decisions have established a reasonable balance between the rights of workers and the need to ensure a safe workplace. No one has demonstrated how random testing will make workplaces any safer."
Barrett points out that most experts believe that random testing is an ineffective method for addressing substance use. "It has too many flaws - from false positives, to evasion methods, to inability to prove intoxication."
The current legal structure gives employers the ability to manage their workplace, and to take action against unsafe work practices. This includes intoxication. "Employers don't need more powers to address substance use, they just need to start using the powers they already have."
"The U.S. has widespread pre-employment and random testing and it has not made their workplaces safer. Why are we going down a path that has proven ineffective?" Barrett asks.
For more information call:
Kerry Barrett, AFL President at 720-8945 (cell) or 483-3021 (wk)
Jason Foster, AFL Director of Policy Analysis at 483-3021
Kerry Barrett, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, February 2005
Good afternoon. My name is Kerry Barrett and I'm here to bring greetings on behalf of the Alberta Federation of Labour's Executive Council.
The Federation represents about 120,000 members from many different unions in this province.
At one time or another, we've all suffered the frustration and anger that comes from dealing with a stubborn employer.
So, we understand what you're going through right now - and we want to assure you that both as unions and as individuals, we are prepared to anything and everything we can to help you get a fair collective agreement.
The struggle that you're having with Telus is one that is going on in many sectors of the economy.
On one side, we have a company that is worth billions - and is the dominant player in its industry in western Canada. On the other had, we have you, the workers, who have made the company strong.
The mangers of Telus have made big mistakes, they've made bad investments and they've consistently focused on short-term self-interest over the real long-term best interests of the company.
But who gets the blame for managements' failures? And who has to pay the price, in terms of lay-offs, pay cuts, reduced benefits? It's not the guys on top, it's not people like Darren Entwhistle.
Instead, it's people like you, the people who actually do the work.
That's what this dispute is really about. And it's the same kind of dispute we in the labour movement are dealing with in so many sectors.
The good news is that you've been taking action. You've stood up for a fair and equitable deal for all Telus employees & and you've won a few rounds at the CIRB.
Obviously, the company's latest tactics are frustrating. If they put half as much effort into negotiating as they put into fighting there our employees, a deal would have been reached long ago.
But that's the way too many managers approach labour relations these days. They dig their heels in, they try to divide people they try to starve us out. It's all part of the play book.
But you know? Even in this hostile climate, unions like yours can win. Other unions and other workers have faced down tactics like this and still emerged with good agreements. I am confident that you will do the same.
In conclusion I'd just like to say two things. First, our federation's convention is coming up here in Edmonton in May.
I'm looking forward to seeing many of you there and celebrating what I'm confident will eventually be a victory for you and TWU.
Second, and more importantly, I want to make sure you know that - whatever happens - they rest of the labour movement is behind you.
The locations and the employers' names may be different, but we're all in the same boat, facing the same challenges. Whatever we can do to help, we'll be there for you.
Good luck with your fight. And thank you for this opportunity to talk to you today. Solidarity!
Random drug and alcohol testing misses the root problem with substance abuse, and will fail to produce safer workplaces, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) says today. The AFL is responding to government suggestions that they will be forging ahead on random drug and alcohol testing.
"The drive toward more random testing is the result of impaired thinking," says AFL Acting President Kerry Barrett. "It is a knee-jerk reaction. It is not based in science or in any understanding of the issue."
A comprehensive study conducted by AADAC and recently released shows that drug and alcohol impairment is not a growing problem, and is restricted to very few workers in a handful of specific industries. It finds that only 5.6% of workers use alcohol during or in the hours before work on a regular basis, and only 1.7% use illicit drugs at or before work. And that the rate of drug and alcohol is linked to only a couple of industries, including construction and telecommunications.
The AADAC study decides against random testing. "AADAC does not recommend employee alcohol and drug testing except in cases where alcohol or other drug use constitutes a genuine risk to the workplace operations or public safety" says a Summary of the report.
"The issue is not whether a person uses alcohol or drugs on the weekend in their home - that is none of the employer's business. The question we need to stay focused on is how impairment affects the safety of workers. And random testing will not fix that problem" says Barrett.
"Randomly testing all workers to catch the very few with a substance use problem is like using amputation to deal with a hangnail. We need more finessed solutions that tackle the root problem" suggests Barrett.
She also reminds the government that random testing has been found to contravene Human Rights legislation. "Any attempt to legislate random testing will likely be struck down by the courts."
Barrett suggests Employee Assistance Programs, rehabilitation and counseling and attention to the warning signs that accompany substance abuse are better methods for reducing impairment in the workplace. "Solutions that get to the reasons why people abuse drugs and alcohol will be far more effective at fixing this safety problem."
"Employers are demanding more testing because it is a quick solution that lets them off the hook. We need solutions that make workplaces safer, and not just let employers feel like tough guys."
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For further information, contact:
Kerry Barrett, President at 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-720-8945 (cell)
Jason Foster, Director at 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-910-1137 (cell)
EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour is formally lifting a union-led viewer boycott of A-Channel as workers at the station head back to their jobs today after a grueling five month strike.
"We are tremendously happy with the support that Edmontonians showed for the strikers during this long and often bitter dispute," says AFL president Les Steel.
"But now that a fair agreement has been reached, we want to send the message that the best way to continue supporting the workers is to tune into A-Channel and watch the programs they produce."
A-Channel workers in Edmonton walked off the job on September 17, 2003 after negotiations towards a first contract broke down. After months of tension between the workers and Craig Media, A-Channel's parent company, an agreement was finally reached in mid February.
"It took a long time, but the workers eventually got almost everything they were looking for, including reasonable raises and a pay grid that recognizes experience," says Steel.
"But the real key to winning this strike was the support the workers received from rank-and-file union members and members of the broader community. We asked Edmontonians to stop watching A-Channel during the strike - and viewership for the station dropped by half. We're convinced that this was what really paved the way for a settlement."
In addition to the union-led viewer boycott, Steel says the labour movement demonstrated solidarity with the striking workers by raising about $40,000 for the strikers and their families during the Christmas season and another $15,000 at a special fund-raiser last Friday night.
The money raised at last week's fundraiser will go to a handful of strikers who lost their jobs permanently as a result of a management decision to transfer some tasks to its station in Calgary.
"Obviously, we're saddened that not all of the strikers are going back to work - and we're doing what we can for those workers," says Steel. "But, at the end of the day, this is really a hopeful, even inspiring story. It sends the message that, if they stand together, workers and members of the community can derail the agendas of even the largest corporations."
For more information call:
Les Steel, AFL President @ 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-499-4135 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-910-1137 (cell)
The Alberta Federation of Labour reacted with disappointment early today after the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench ruled there wasn't enough evidence to proceed with a case against the Labour Relations Board.
In particular, the court said it was unconvinced that the Labour Relations Board had acted inappropriately when it came to its handling of the provinces controversial new health care labour law, Bill 27.
"The court basically rejected our arguments that the government had exercised inappropriate influence over the LRB when it came to drafting and implementing Bill 27," says AFL president Les Steel.
"But, frankly, we in the labour movement don't feel reassured. We are not any more confident today than we were yesterday that the deck hasn't been stacked against health care workers."
Steel points out that the judge saw merit in the court challenge which was brought forward by the United Nurses of Alberta, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union and several other labour organizations. In fact, the court said the unions raised reasonable doubt about the role of both the government and the LRB.
"But the real problem was lack of evidence," said Steel. "The government simply refused to disclose all the relevant documents. They have been hiding behind the Freedom of Information Act. And that's what really made it difficult for us to make the case."
With that in mind, Steel said the AFL and other unions would proceed with a number of FOIP appeals aimed at getting more information about communication between the government and the LRB.
"The bottom line is that our system of labour relations can only work if workers and unions have trust in the impartiality of the LRB. For many of us, that trust simply isn't there right now," says Steel. "So we will continue doing everything we can to make sure the referee in labour relations doesn't take sides. Workers need to have confidence that the deck isn't being stacked against them."
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For further information, contact: Les Steel, AFL President at 780-499-4135 (cell)
The headlines in city papers proclaimed the happy news: a saviour had arisen who would lead the west out from the wilderness. Westerners - and Albertans in particular - would finally enjoy real power at the centre of the Canadian universe! Hallelujah!
The agent of this wonderful change was none other than Anne McLellan - former federal health minister and Liberal MP for Edmonton West. And the occasion for celebration, of course, was the decision by newly-minted Prime Minister Paul Martin to name McLellan as his second-in-command.
Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan! And minister of post Sept. 11 overkill ( er& I mean national security) to boot! Cue the trumpets!
You'll forgive me if I don't join the chorus in praise of St. Anne.
You see, I'm one of thousands of left-of-centre Albertans who have watched McLennan's career over the past decade. And to put it bluntly, it has been a huge disappointment.
It wasn't always thus.
I remember back in 1994 when McLellan was making her first bid for election in Edmonton West. Many people who I respect were excited about her campaign.
She's a top professor at the U of A's law faculty, they told me. She's progressive. She's a feminist. She's savvy. Caring. Tough.
I have to admit, it all sounded good at the time. In a province where the forty or so percent of the population that doesn't support the Reform/Alliance/Conservatives is routinely denied representation by the vagaries of our first-past-the-post system, the prospect of electing a "social Liberal" in the Trudeau-Pearson mold was pretty appealing.
Ten years later, there are still some people - many of whom should know better - spouting the "Anne as Progressive" line. The problem is, we're still waiting for evidence.
Anne in Action
Political junkies in Alberta are familiar with McLellan's story. After winning a razor-thin victory in the 1994 general election, McLellan - as one of only a handful of western Liberals - was quickly brought into the Chretein cabinet: first as Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, then as Justice Minister, and most recently as Health Minister.
By virtue of these lofty postings, McLellan became a member of the federal government's inner circle. Despite all the current hoopla about her newest job in the Martin cabinet, the truth is that McLellan has been one of the most powerful and influential Liberals in the country for the past decade. The question is: what did she do with that power? The answer, unfortunately is: not much.
In fact, for all those who believed she would be a beacon of liberal light in a sea of mean-spirited Reform-Alliance darkness, McLellan has proven to be worse than a "do-nothing": she has often ended up supporting the very conservative politicians and policies many people thought she had been elected to oppose.
If you doubt this assessment, let's take a look at her record in three key areas: civil liberties, the environment and health care.
The War on Civil Liberties
Anne McLellan had the dubious honour of being Canada's Justice Minister during the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
At the time, there was tremendous domestic and international pressure on the government to enhance the security of Canadians and make it more difficult for would-be terrorists to operate in the country.
Given this atmosphere, politics dictated that McLellan had to do something in support of the so-called "war on terrorism": the question was, what?
Unfortunately, McLellan opted for legislative changes that lean more towards the American-style heavy-hand than towards traditional Canadian-style moderation.
The two anti-terrorism bills that McLellan produced - Bill C-36 and Bill C-35 - can best be described as draconian. In the eyes of many, the new laws' broad definitions of "terrorism" essentially act to criminalize legitimate dissent. And they profoundly undermine the rights and civil liberties of Canadian citizens - especial those who have the misfortune of sporting Arabic sounding names or who happen to have been born in Middle Eastern countries.
Significantly, it wasn't only progressives and activists who thought McLellan had gone too far. The list of those vehemently opposed to the new anti-terrorism laws also included such established groups as the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the citizen oversight committee for CSIS.
Today, Canada's anti-terrorism is in place - and some observers say it is at least as much of a challenge to civil liberties as the much reviled Patriot Act in the U.S. The question for supporters of Anne McLellan is this: what happened to her vaunted "progressive" values? And when, exactly, did appeasing the current hard-right administration in Washington become more important that preserving the democratic freedoms of ordinary Canadians?
The next item on the list of "Most disappointing moments" for Anne McLellan came during the debate on the Kyoto Accord.
It was the fall of 2002 and Prime Minister Jean Chretein was finally showing some interest in implementing a "social-Liberal" agenda before stepping down. One of the main components of that agenda was, of course, action on global warming through support of the Kyoto Accord.
Poll after poll at the time showed that Canadians overwhelmingly supported the Accord. People understood the issue of global warming and they saw Kyoto as the first step in dealing with the problem.
Even here in Alberta, the majority of people backed Kyoto. In fact, the only two groups of any note that opposed the deal were the Calgary-based energy industry and members of the Klein government.
And who did McLellan side with in this debate? Did she honour the wishes of own constituents? Did she support the position staked out by her own government?
Unfortunately, the answer to these last two questions is 'no.'
Instead of standing behind the Prime Minister who appointed her and fighting for a policy that the majority of Canadians clearly supported, McLellan chose to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Klein government and their patrons in the energy industry.
To make matters worse, McLellan broke ranks just as the Kyoto debate was reaching a crescendo. And she didn't just choose to abstain from the vote on Kyoto implementation. She threatened to resign unless the government essentially exempted the energy industry (one of our countries biggest producers of greenhouse gases) from Kyoto targets.
Eventually, the federal government decided to go ahead with its plans for Kyoto - and McLellan voted in favour of a watered-down version of the bill to implement the deal. However, there can be no doubt that McLellan's intervention took a great deal of wind out of Kyoto's sails.
Most alarmingly, McLellan's views on Kyoto seems to be very similar to the views held by new Prime Minister Paul Martin. With these two in charge, the likelihood of any meaningful action towards reducing the emission of greenhouse gases seems to have been greatly reduced.
Score one for the oil barons.
Medicare's missed opportunity
Anne McLellan's track record on the Kyoto Accord and terrorism is highly questionable - and it certainly earns her a place on the list of "Most Conservative" Liberal cabinet ministers ever. But those are not the things that people are most likely to remember her for. Instead, if she is remembered at all, it will be as the Health Minister who missed the chance to save Medicare.
It was on her watch, after all, that Roy Romanow delivered his sweeping and widely praised report on the future of health care.
After touring the country, examining health systems from around the world and talking to literally thousands of experts and ordinary Canadians, Romanow concluded that Medicare was worth saving. And he said that the best way to save it was by keeping it public.
In many ways, Romanow made it easy for McLellan and our country's ten provincial premiers. He gave them a detailed and workable road map for reform. And, thanks to his tireless touring, he helped build the political momentum to do big things: Canadians overwhelmingly supported his vision and were willing to get behind major reforms.
But did McLellan take advantage of the ideas and the opportunity handed to her by Romanow? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
More than a year has passed since the Romanow report was released and only one of its major recommendations (the creation of a national health council) has been implemented. All the other recommendations - on things like Pharmacare, primary care reform and rural health care - are all but forgotten.
Obviously, the Premiers (especially conservative Premiers like Ralph Klein and B.C.'s Gordon Campbell) have to shoulder much of the blame for the failure of governments to embrace the Romanow roadmap.
But, as the federal Health Minister, Anne McLellan could have played a leadership role. She could have used the wide public support for the Romanow report as a tool to pressure the Premiers into action.
But she did none of that. In fact, it can be argued that McLellan's interventions actually encouraged the Premiers to reject Romanow. For example, she was quoted saying that private delivery of health services might actually make sense - contrary to all the evidence presented in Romanow's report. And she also made a point of praising Alberta's blueprint for health reform - the controversial Mazankowski report - even though it pointed in an entirely opposite direction from Romanow.
Based on her performance, it's not unreasonable to conclude that McLellan never really wanted Romanow's recommendations implemented - even though most other Canadians did. And it's also not a stretch to argue that her policy of benign neglect played a big role in smothering the Romanow baby in its crib.
Better than a Reformer?
Despite McLellan's track record, there are still left-leaning voters in Alberta who will say: better Anne than an Alliance-Conservative candidate. That's the argument that was used to such great effect by McLellan's camp during the federal election when Stockwell Day was used as the boogie-man of choice.
But you know what? Based on her performance over the past few years - and especially her shocking and profoundly disappointing record on health care, the environment and civil liberties - I've become convinced that a back bench Alliance-Conservative MP would actually have been preferable. Why? Because, they likely wouldn't be any more conservative than Anne has been - and, as opposition outsiders, they almost certainly would have done less damage.
In the end, what's the lesson in all this? It's that we should judge politicians on their actions, not on some misty-eyed nostalgia about the past of their party or on the rhetoric of their followers.
By any measure of her actual record, Anne McLellan fails the "progressive" test. She is a (reactionary) wolf in (liberal) sheep's clothing.
Worse than that, her record suggests that the new government under Paul Martin will be one of the most conservative we've seen in Ottawa for years. So brace yourselves everyone - with Paul and Anne in charge we're about to start a rocky ride back to a more conservative future.
Gil McGowan, AFL Executive Staff
|AFL Year-end Message|
Looking ahead to the New Year, it's clear the Labour movement will have a lot on its plate. New rules on drug and alcohol testing in the workplace. The potential for serious job losses in the forestry industry. And the on-going pressure on working families as wages stagnate and costs for things like utilities, tuition and insurance sky-rocket - all as the result of ill-conceived government policies.
But even though all these concerns are serious, there is another labour issue that looms larger than the rest. And that's the issue of the war the provincial government is planning to wage on Alberta nurses.
"For years now - through round after round of cutbacks, lay-offs and privatization - nurses and other health care workers have gone the extra mile. Their dedication and hard work is the only thing that has kept the system from flying apart at the seams," says Les Steel, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"And how does the government plan to reward nurses for their commitment? By using legislation to force major rollbacks to their conditions of work, that's how. And, for good measure, they're threatening to disband the nurses' union if they decide to protest such heavy-handed action by going on strike. That's a pretty big lump of coal, even by this government's standards."
Alberta's 20,000 registered nurses have been attempting to negotiate a new contract for nearly a year now. Money has never been the issue - the nurses have asked only for a small cost-of-living increase. The real stumbling block has been the demands put on the table by regional health authorities through their bargaining organization, the Provincial Health Authorities of Alberta (PHAA).
The government and the PHAA want the power to force nurses into working more irregular hours and, in many cases, permanent night shifts. They also want to give managers the ability to move nurses from one hospital to another on a whim.
The PHAA set an incredibly hostile tone on the first day of negotiations last January when they warned that if they didn't get their way, they would ask the government to step in and impose a contract - in the same way the Campbell government had done with nurses in B.C. Since that time, the PHAA has stubbornly refused to show any flexibility at the bargaining table - their position today is virtually unchanged from what it was 11 months ago.
"The really frustrating thing about this whole situation is that the key positions staked out by the PHAA - the ones they refuse to budge on - don't make any sense," says Steel. "The nurses are already committed to a fair rotation of shifts, with nurses guaranteed a split of 40 percent days to 60 percent evenings and weekends. And, in the era of SARS, forcing nurses to constantly move from one hospital to another is just downright dangerous. Given how unreasonable their demands are, we're left asking: why are the government and the PHAA being so deliberately provocative? It's starting to look like they want to force the nurses into a strike so they can punish them."
Steel says that if the government thinks it can get away with bullying the nurses and forcing concessions that roll the clock back 25 years, they've got another thing coming. He says Alberta's health care system will be threatened and patient care compromised if the government goes to war with nurses. This kind of chaos won't sit well with the public - especially if the only goal is to settle some kind of political score with the nurses, he says.
"At the same time, the government has to realize that if they go after the nurses, they won't only be facing nurses. They'll be facing off against the entire labour movement and significant sections of the broader public," says Steel.
With that in mind, major unions have already begun meetings aimed at mustering support for the nurses and developing plans and strategies in the event of a strike. Many of Alberta's major unions have already agreed to participate in the support meetings - and many others are expected to get involved in January.
"A government-sponsored war on the nurses will be a disaster for all Albertans," says Steel. "It will undermine the entire health care system and seriously compromise the ability of health care workers to provide top-quality care. That's why we will try to convince members of the government in January that they have to rein in the PHAA. We will also remind them that a negotiated settlement is still within reach - and still in the public's best interests. But if it does come to a strike, we're not going to make it easy for the government. We'll stand shoulder to shoulder with the nurses. And we won't give up until the PHAA backs away from its unreasonable and deliberately provocative positions."
For further information, contact:
Les Steel, President, AFL at 780-483-3021 or 780-499-4135