“Strikes are only one measure of unrest.” Todd Vachon, an assistant professor and director of labor education at Rutgers University.
Did you catch it, that shift in the balance of power?
Last Wednesday Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a statement announcing the government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) had received the mediator’s recommendation to settle the ongoing contract negotiations. Mr Toews said the government was looking forward to the results of the AUPE’s ratification vote.
That was it. A three sentence announcement. Unusually terse, even for Mr Toews.
The less said the better
What Mr Toews didn’t say was the mediator rejected the government’s proposal calling for a 4% salary rollback and significant reductions in overtime pay and other benefits (it’s all part of Kenney’s plan to cut the public service by $1 billion by 2023-24 from 2019 levels).
The Kenney government argued the wage/benefit reductions were warranted because:
- Alberta spends more per capita on the public service than the other Canadian provinces (as per Kenney’s lopsided MacKinnon Report)
- Alberta’s economy was hit hard by covid and the oil price collapse (a decent covid mitigation plan and a sincere effort to diversify the economy could have helped, no?)
- Unemployment is the highest it’s been since the 1980s (see second bullet)
- Albertans in the private sector lost their jobs or took pay cuts and public service employees must share the pain (perhaps they’d be prepared to share the pain if they were allowed to share the gain; oh wait, government employees don’t get bonuses and stock options),
- Alberta’s government is seeing decreased revenues, increased expenses, higher than anticipated debt and record high deficits (see second bullet).
The mediator disagreed and recommended a one-year salary freeze followed by a 1.25% increase effective Jan 1, 2023, with additional increases to come down the road. .
This was not the first time a mediator or an arbitrator rejected the government’s arguments for wage cuts.
A quick review of the AUPE website for 2021 shows wage rollbacks proposed by ATB, eight Alberta colleges, Alberta Pension Services, and other institutions were tossed out in favour of modest wage hikes.
One would think the Kenney government, perennially antagonistic to the unions, would wave the MacKinnon Report like a flag and charge into battle. Instead it folded. Why?
Perhaps it’s because the premier’s popularity is at such a nadir that he can’t risk triggering a strike or lockout.
Or perhaps Albertans (including the thousands who work for the government) finally realized that even the biggest bully backs down when their victims fight back.
Or perhaps covid, like WW1 and WW2, has changed things forever.
Economist and policy advisor Robert Reich says the pandemic was the last straw for many workers who’ve quit for good or are refusing to return to work until their wages and/or working conditions improve. This created a shortage of replacement workers which has given union and non-union workers real leverage.
The Kenney government made a dog’s breakfast out of contract renegotiations before the pandemic took hold; now almost two years into the pandemic government workers are burned out and frustrated…and the Kenney government offered them even lower pay and fewer benefits. The mediator was clear, this isn’t good enough.
The balance of power has shifted to the unions and if Kenney pushes them too far, they’ll walk. But here’s the interesting thing, the level of unrest in Kenney’s Alberta is so high that if the unions walk many Albertans will be right there with them on the picket lines.
No wonder Mr Toews decided to say as little as possible.
Susan: Thanks for another great blog. I think the UCP has more of an agenda, than wage rollbacks for public service employees. They want to pursue Ralph Klein type cuts, for things like healthcare in Alberta, so they can also achieve Ralph Klein’s goal of having private for profit healthcare in Alberta. Much like Ralph Klein did, the UCP does very costly mistakes, and thinks that oil booms will save the day. I think these higher oil prices are just a temporary thing, and I think oil prices will shoot back down. The UCP’s foolish corporate tax cuts, which were in the neighborhood of $8 billion to $10 billion, (and hadn’t gained investment and employment to Alberta, like the UCP claimed), and low oil prices, don’t mix. This drained revenue from these two things, as well as the UCP throwing away billions of dollars on other quite costly mistakes, causes the UCP to take it out on others, including our elderly, the most vulnerable, any healthcare employees, those employed in the education system, such as teachers, and so on. We aren’t any better off with these cuts, as we still are seeing the adverse effects of the cuts from Ralph Klein. Cuts don’t save money at all, and they don’t leave us in a better position.
Dwayne, ATB Financial just announced that oil production for the first 8 months of 2021 was 865 million barrels for an average of 3.6 million barrels per day and this is the HIGHEST rate of production on record. Oil prices have also shot up over that time period, the dollar value of international crude oil exports from Alberta was 48% higher over the first 8 months of 2021 than the same period last year ($35 billion compared to $51 billion). What’s really interesting about this news is that the oil companies are not hiring back scads of oil workers and the office towers in downtown Calgary are still 30% vacant. Markham Hislop called it a long time ago, he said oil prices may rise and production may increase but the jobs aren’t coming back because the companies have learned to use technology and fewer people to get the job done.
So much for Kenney’s great promise of jobs, economy, pipelines.
Susan: As I said, I don’t think that oil prices will remain like this, but they will go down.
I think these oil price levels are a short term thing.
Susan and Dwayne: the current high oil prices seem to be driven by the bounce-back from the Covid-19 induced recession in 2020, partly because of pent-up consumer demand. So is the current round of high inflation, caused by disruptions to global supply chains. (That’s my Twitter-style synopsis of months of economic reporting by CBC, BBC and The Guardian web sites.)
The consensus is that prices will indeed come down, but “when” has become the question. Supply-chain disruptions (with emphasis on computer chips) are now expected to be resolved some time in 2022, probably the second half.
But there’s another, long-term disruptor that will affect oil and gas prices. Global heating and climate disruption are now undeniable. That’s going to cause sudden, often drastic, shifts in oil and gas prices as demand and supply see-saw in and out of balance. Art Berman, a well-known and respected oil industry analyst, has been pointing out such effects in the American oil industry for years (mainly the false promise of the fracking industry to be profitable “any day now”). Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute (sponsor of the resilience.org web site) has also weighed in on oil and gas issues. There’s also Kurt Cobb of Resource Insights, also a regular on resilience.org.
We’re going to see more mood swings in oil and gas pricing in the next decade. Every time the price goes up, paleoconservatives will cheer the revival of oil and gas. Every time the price crashes, the Calgary oil guys will screech for government bailouts. No matter which way prices go, Alberta governments, still thoroughly captured by Big Oil, will try to protect the dying, soon zombie, industry.
It’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better. Sorry to say it, friends, but we all better get used to having less of the good things in life—because we won’t be able to afford them much longer. It would take a miracle to get a government in the Kingdom of Oilberduh that recognizes this inconvenient truth–and has the guts to act on it.
WE are in essential agreement, until your last paragraph…where I would add that how soon Albertans face reality actually depends on all of us. Yes, the political clout of Big Oil is still far greater than we would expect, given the market realities of fracked gas and bitumen production….
But if citizens like yourself see the writing on the wall and all of us speak up, act up, and move to more resilient forms of energy and entertainment…….we might yet cobble together a government with the understanding and the courage to do the necessary things. The NDP did make a start, with rebates for solar installations and a carbon tax that was actually better than the federal tax in my opinion……..
But Albertans chose Kenney and the illusions of a return to the bad old days. I think a few of us are waking up to the price we pay for trying to rivive a moribund past….maybe next time we’ll vote our vision not our fear.
Mary, I certainly hope you’re right that enough of us will kick the next government hard enough to overcome the “capture” syndrome so prevalent in Canadian politics. (For an Alberta perspective, see Kevin Taft’s “Oil’s Deep State.”) Kenney is a disastrously bad example of what happens when a politician sells out, heart and soul, to a clique of businessmen. Please remember, even Rachel Notley changed from a critic of Big Oil to a cheerleader within weeks of becoming premier.
It’ll take a lot of noise, a lot of effort and a lot of organizing for us peons to overcome the entrenched power of Big Oil. If the next government refuses to face the new reality, we’ll continue to lurch from one crisis to the next. With luck and international action on climate change–who knows? Maybe even Oilberduh will wake up and smell the coffee.
It’s not as if we have any real choice. But you are right, it is going to depend on all of us.
Alberta’s economy was hit hard by covid and the oil price collapse It was also hit hard by giving tax breaks to companies on their way out the door and blowing 1.8billion on a gamble of which president would be elected.(a decent covid mitigation plan and a sincere effort to diversify the economy could have helped, no?)
Unemployment is the highest it’s been since the 1980s (see second bullet) <This!
Albertans in the private sector lost their jobs or took pay cuts and public service employees must share the pain (perhaps they’d be prepared to share the pain if they were allowed to share the gain; oh wait, government employees don’t get bonuses and stock options),The public service employees should not to "share the pain" as they were working and in some cases with few holidays unlike you and your caucus. You need to remember loss of wages also affects the economy. #FiretheUCP
You said it Pinky. There’s a strange ideology in conservative circles that reveres the private sector regardless of how many times companies go bust, or make stupid decisions and come begging for government subsidies, or violate securities laws and gut their pension plans, or put their employees in unsafe work environments, and the public at risk by polluting the air, ground, and water. Their CEOs have tremendous influence, but single moms trying to earn enough money to take care of their families? Not so much.
I imagine the dismally low approval rating of Kenney has something to do with this (and other recent union/pension wins). This government knows its chances of being elected in the next election are falling fast, and the concessions are starting to happen. Even though these concessions are not sincere nor a gesture of goodwill, they are still a win. However, I hope nobody forgets how gross the UCP has been to public sector workers (actually, the public in general) and gets lulled into voting for them when the time comes.
Comment you make a very important point. So many people who voted for the UCP are now suffering the consequences of their decision. One can only hope that they’ll remember the misery inflicted upon them by this government and not be bought off by Kenney’s version of Ralph Bucks when the next election rolls around.
Frankly I don’t see how Kenney can turn this around, but the stupidity of some voters never ceases to amaze me.
It slipped by without notice but the government canceled their plans to privatize the Registries on the same day. The union and a very few workers put up an amazing effort to rally support from the private sector.
Anthony, this is an extremely important win on the part of the AUPE. The AUPE saved 130 jobs by fighting the privatization of Land Titles, Corporate and Personal registries which were going to be handed over to the private sector under a 35-year concession agreement.
The Registries had a net profit of approximately $123.6 million in fiscal year ending March 31, 2020. The potential loss of revenue to the Kenney government could have been as high as $4.3 billion over the 35 year agreement. So while the Kenney government was nickle and diming Albertans with things like park fees and it was prepared to throw $124 million out the window.
Furthermore the Parkland Institute studied what happened in Ontario when it privatized its registries and found fees more than doubled.
Someone was going to benefit hugely from this plan but it certainly wasn’t Albertans.
Here are the links https://www.aupe.org/news/news-and-updates/congrats-saving-government-alberta-registries-and-130-jobs
Thank you so much, Susan! These are issues that often go clearly misunderstood for many people. Premiums go up but after they adjust to that …. no clear objection from Joe Q.Public!
Anthony, you raise a point often overlooked about the UCP and its attacks on bureaucracy. When a government agency is working well—why damage it? In late 2019 (after the federal election), Kenney slashed government staffing in an austerity-style downsizing move. My employer, InnoTech Alberta (formerly the Alberta Research Council) was hammered with a 20% reduction in staffing. Instantly, we were unable to keep up with our contract obligations to a wide range of Alberta companies—especially the oil and gas industry.
What happened? We were told to work harder. We tried, but when you rush a lab tech, he tends to make mistakes. (There’s some truth to the adage, “Our work is fast, cheap and perfect. Pick two.”) Even worse (for the UCP) our clients started leaving “WTF?” messages with the corporate management—maybe also the minister and premier.
Kenney and his fellow-idiots are textbook examples of worst kind of right-wing politician. These guys are convinced that businesses can do nothing wrong, and governments can do nothing right. As soon as they form a government—they prove themselves correct.
Well said Mike…..they are truly propogandists busy illustrating the principle of the self fulfilling prophesy……being literally the bottom of the barrel of over 40 years of rule by the lackey’s of a petrostate…..they couldn’t be more incompetent if they worked at it;
It’s taken a few years but Mr. Toews has finally come to town. Remember that’s where 90% of us live.
Remember he is a rural, one of those souls who thinks us townies have long abandoned “common sense” as whot is endemic in his constituents, who boast they look after their own and don’t countenance social challenges and cultural nuances like city people mistakenly deal with.
Sitting on the Sky Palace patio, in the warm shade of a downtown summer day he has drunk in more than just Alberta Premium Rye, and moved a few bushels to the left.
Excellent column. Straightforward and open.
“Albertans in the private sector lost their jobs or took pay cuts and public service employees must share the pain” … this is one of the most insidious assertions made by conservatives. In reality, public sector workers have been living under wage constraints for years, even in boom times, as governments primed an already overheated economic pump by investing in infrastructure during labour and contractor shortages, saw costs escalate like crazy, and sought to prevent us from joining the upward ride. And while private sector workers even at the shop floor — or wellhead — enjoyed bonuses of all kinds, as well as perqs like a company truck, fleet fuel cards, and so on, public sector workers saw no such benefits, except those in the very top layers of the org charts.
Then when the boom ended, as all booms do, even the otherwise worker-friendly Notley NDP government felt the need to freeze public sector wages, as though inflation weren’t still happening and as though their contributions to the economy weren’t still significant. In health care, for instance, many two-earner families saw one partner — usually male — laid off or experience cuts in hours or compensation, and it was the health care worker — usually female — in the family who kept earning income.
As for the current UCP government, their disdain and open contempt for workers and the unions that represent them is palpable. Their anti-worker legislation — rolling back improvements to the OH&S Code made by the Notley government, attacking the democratic governance of unions, and empowering them to secretly dictate collective bargaining terms to arms-length public sector employers like AHS — are only a few examples.
My hope is that this group of workers represented by AUPE reject this mediator’s recommendation as little more than Chamberlain-style appeasement, and vote for strike action — shortly to be followed by each and every bargaining unit negotiating with this government.
Jerrymacgp, my experience as an AUPE member was similar to yours. Notley inherited a $7 billion deficit from the Old Tories under Jim Prentice (a factiod the Cons conveniently forget) which prompted a wage freeze. The single biggest difference between Notley’s government and the Old Tories was that Notley & Co. were polite about it.
“… if the unions walk many Albertans will be right there with them on the picket lines. ” Damn right. I’m ready for picket duty. Anyone else?
Yep, I’ll be right there with you, Reynold!
Be careful!! When you go out on strike your union admin usually know just how and when they will be able to get workers back in. That is not something I would trust with the UCP salivating at an opportunity to break the union!
Thanks for another informative column, Susan! I love that you quoted one of my favourites: Robert Reich. Despite the tragic losses, we are seeing silver linings in this whole experience, starting with the shift in balance of power toward workers, as you point out so well. I’d also say that we got a good indication of how well a Universal Basic Income could work. Now we just have to push back on the tired old narratives that workers would rather sit at home than participate in meaningful employment as well as the predicable fear-mongering about inflation.
Here’s a meme I found on a US news web site called Front Page Live:
“If your employees earn more on unemployment, you’re not a not a job creator. You’re a poverty exploiter.”
Yes, so true. I also like the one (inaccurate quote) that if you can’t pay a living wage and still make a profit, your business plan is not a good one.
Sometimes the devil we fear turns out to be exactly as we imagined……..and the reality of living in the character’s kingdom wakes us up. Precarity and slave labour wages are not signs of prosperity…rather they are indicators of an economic ideology on the rocks. Time to not just ‘fight back’ but ‘build back better’…..a job creation scheme that requires a different kind of politician and a better plan of governance.
The UCP is lucky that we are voting municipal & not provincial right now. I too would like to fire the Utterly Clueless Party asap. I will say they have a 100% batting average when it comes to making decisions that actually make the problem worse. Take the by any other name vaccine passport they reluctantly imposed some 3 weeks ago. Not only did they continue to offer the $100 gift card to the previously unvaccinated – rewards for bad behavior, who’d have thought? – but the QR code rollout was less than thought through. Now all of us who got the paperwork showing we had our shots have to repeat the process, since the original paperwork didn’t have a QR code & as of November 15th that too will be required for the passport to be accepted. No, you don’t get $100 for the time & inconvenience of getting your QR code copy. However, you can 1) stand in line at a registry office to get it printed ‘for free’; 2) access the website, scan, download &/or print it yourself or 3) call 811 to have it mailed to you. On the plus side, the passport did see vaccination rates jump dramatically. Surprise!
Susan, you made interesting points regarding the “power” dynamics in the AUPE negotiations with the UCP government, and the mediators decision. How the dynamics shift is pretty interesting too, and what the influencing factors are, e.g. economics, pandemics and so on. Politics.
I have been paying attention to what is happening in the U.S. with the John Deere Company and the current strife with their employees. Maybe this caught my attention because I come from a long line of farmers and also have some strong labour DNA. My take: John Deere Company has made record profits during the pandemic, and are not wanting to share with the employees- not even a little bit. But because of a shortage of workers, their employees are in a position of more power now than they have been for a while. None-the-less John Deere is getting down and dirty. In fact, I heard via a tweet from Jonah Furman, a labour organizer and writer in Washington D.C. was “John Deere is cutting off 10,000 workers and their families’ health insurance on Oct. 27. They could easily *not* do this but they want to break the strike. … It’s obvious at this point but Medicare for All would unchain labour and make it much more possible to organize. It creates a break from the total domination your boss commands over your kid’s insulin or your husband’s chemo.”
I usually try to segue everything into a discussion about the importance of universal health care AKA Medicare, but it isn’t a big leap to see how vulnerable Canadians would be if we didn’t have it and the principles enshrined in the Canada Health Act. I think it also important for Albertans to acknowledge the essential role strong unions play in defending Medicare. It isn’t by whim they showed up at the summer rallies with doctors, nurses, teachers, parents, grandparents and all the health care advocates to protest the Kenney government’s gay abandonment of any Covid-pandemic protocols. (Which we are now seeing the fruit born thereof.)
The unions, I notice, have also shown up, with teachers, nurses, public servants, health care and seniors advocates, and regular old concerned citizens at the UCP policy conventions where the UCP delegates and caucus members keep voting down support for universally accessible healthcare and push American-style two-tier care. It’s becoming very easy now to connect-the-dots in the UCP plan to blow up our public health care system and drive the unions into the ground at the same time. The Morinville News reporting about the October 14, 2020 UCP Policy Convention, said, “Saturday’s UCP convention includes Policy 11, a request put forward by the Calgary-Varsity constituency, to ‘support the option of a privately-funded and privately-managed healthcare system.’ Guess who the MLA for Calgary Varsity is? Jason Copping, our very own Minister Of Health. Who, btw at that time was Alberta’s Minister of Labour. We are really up against it- we have 2 years to go with this government and if we want anything decent left of this province for us, our kids, grandchildren and anyone who may be deranged enough to move here by then we will ALL have to pull together to change our government.
I couldn’t agree more, but feel the need to add…..when the unions come out in support of health care workers……and the support staff that was the first to be cut (essentially privatized, just as Klein did in the 80’s) a few of us walked with them. We need to see many more citizens at these rallies……in the thousands if possible. I’m tired from living in this province all these years and seeing so little support for the men and women who run our public services, from the general public.
How do we change that? Convince more folk that activism……to act……is liberating?? Our health care system and education system belongs to all of us…why do we leave it to the unions to defend it?
However: in the US, union leaders are among the strongest opponents of “Medicare for All” within the Democratic Party, at least according to a book I’m currently reading about the 2020 Presidential Election. This is because, apparently, they fear losing the superior health benefits they have negotiated with employers to a potentially stripped-down, bare-bones public plan that would offer far less. They also worry that savings by employers from removing the need to fund employee health benefits will not be passed on to workers. [“Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency”, by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes; discussed on pp. 95, 97 & 143].
That said, Canadian unions tend to be somewhat more lefty* than our American cousins, and the vast majority of Canadian unions would give up group drug coverage in favour of a public Pharmacare plan in a heartbeat, but many of us also pay premiums for our plans on a cost-shared basis with the employers, and those premiums would inevitably go down if insurance carriers didn’t have to pay for prescriptions (those that didn’t cut premiums would probably also lose contracts to those that did). Those benefit plans also cover other things that aren’t covered by provincial plans, like dental, vision care, orthotics, preferred accommodations in hospitals, and the like, and while there are proposals floating around the socialize dental and vision care, there will never be a public plan that is so comprehensive that there isn’t any room for enhancements by private group benefit plans paid for by workers and employers.
*But not that lefty: case in point, at this past week’s UNA virtual AGM, delegates rejected — by an overwhelming margin of over 90% voting against — a proposal to repeal the Union’s position statement of political non-partisanship in favour of formally endorsing the Alberta NDP.
Occasionally good sense prevails even with rigid ideologues or bullies. Usually, as in this case it is because, there is no other viable choice for them. The reasons are all as you said.
First of all, with oil prices rebounding, the Alberta government can hardly cry poor now as the deficit goes returns to more manageable levels. The crisis they so wanted to take advantage of, is receding.
Second, the UCP and Kenney have already alienated and angered a large number of Albertans. Even they know politically they are in a deep hole and continuing this approach will not help them. In particular, Kenney’s leadership is hanging by a thread, so perhaps that threat does concentrate his mind a bit more. Although, right now it is hard to tell if he has just become very disengaged, or has finally realized what a lightening rod he has become and has therefore decided to pull back.
Third, after several years of abuse, doctors, nurses and other professionals working for the provincial government are steadily leaving Alberta or retiring. They can not all easily be replaced and the government knows this is becoming a more serious problem, so it has to at least try to appear to be less belligerent, to try stem this ongoing flow.
Sometimes, as in this case, big battles come to an end fairly quietly and not with a big bang.
Perhaps you’re right Dave, but let’s not count on it. My suspicion is they’ll lie in wait, like the hyenas they are, until our attention wanders. Ideologues don’t change their spots…they only have the one coat.
Toews just like Savage yesterday and the rest of the UCP with their commander in chief have lost any confidence they had with Albertans and now they are just showing their pretty faces of embarrassment.
No one can govern with the lack of support they have right now and everyone is waiting for the fall. They should just fold the circus tent and go try somewhere else. We have had enough.
Unfortunately, we can’t dismiss them mid-term, which might be good to remember when we get our next chance to choose our government….only the UCP breaks contracts in mid term…….citizens can’t get rid of their government in this way.
Yes Mary you are absolutely right but that is what we call democracy.
I can see by the number of messages you have that you are a political nut like me. I am trying to stay away more than I do now but not always successful. The political environment in this province is toxic.
But as we speak up and connect with each other, it will get better. Thanks for responding.
Mary I agree with you and that is why I participate in this blog but the people in Government are cultists and they cannot see reality. We just witnessed Sonya Savage say exactly the opposite of what the report found because she only believes in her own fact less existence and nothing else. She continues to say that there are forces stopping development and creating unemployment regardless of the reality we are living right now with the transition to a greener industry that of course will create less oil consumption and less employment in that industry. Regardless of what is happening she has to believe in conspiracies because that is what they have to fight for. Her boss Jason Kenney does not understand life without bullying and cheating to get whatever he wants even if that means being the biggest jerk in the province.
It\s true that Sonya had to almost blatantly lie to make that report look like it found something. But I’m most flattered by her insistence that the opposition to pipelines was much more organized than we imagined…….350.org did a wonderful job of orchestrating the arrests in Washington against the Keystone, but apart from that, I’ve always experienced our opposition to the tarsands as pretty disorganized.
I suspect they are underestimating the cumulative power of many individuals and small groups, when they wake up to what it means for the future if we let these carpet baggers continue to live high off the land’s resources while giving sweet nothing back.
My sense is we aren’t organized enough. But perhaps the Savage will inspire us to live up to her visions of our single minded intent….hahahahahaha.
Such a transparent spin by Spin Doctor Savage. By tying in and repeating the part about people losing their jobs, the UCP are playing off the emotions of those people to ensure their support. It’s populist manipulation 101.
She’s trying hard to keep them from realizing that once the transition is seriously under way, there are going to be more jobs than Big Oil will ever offer any of us again….they intend to move forward with machine intelligence, not workers.
Susan on the Soap Box I have to say you are the new POLITICAL ANN LANDERS! LOVING EVERY MINUTE OF IT! Thank you!