Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.
For everyone who wants to see life return to pre-pandemic normal, I give you this week’s wildcat strike by Alberta health support workers.
This is the strike — or one quite like it — we would have seen earlier this year if it wasn’t for the pandemic. Of course, COVID-19 screwed up the timetable, as it’s done so effectively with everything else.
In Alberta, this was set up to be the Year of the Picket before it became the Year of the Pandemic.
COVID-19 mucked up the plans of the Alberta government to declare war on the public sector. And it mucked up the plans of unions to stage labour disruptions in protest.
Think back to last fall. Both sides were gearing up for a fight. In November, the government notified public sector unions it would be cutting as many as 6,000 jobs over three years.
Unions responded by holding a massive protest rally outside the United Conservative convention in Calgary.
Kenney responded to the union outrage with a quip: “I’m reminded of what Premier Ralph Klein used to say: ‘If a day goes by and there’s not a protest, I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.'”
Union leaders mused ominously of a general province-wide strike by public sector workers.
For his part, Kenney seemed to be itching for a fight. He had warmly embraced the government-sponsored MacKinnon panel’s report recommending cuts to public sector spending. Finance Minister Travis Toews warned unions that if they won wage hikes in contract talks, they could expect layoffs. The Kenney government had already passed legislation allowing it to hire replacement workers in the event of a public sector strike.
Union leaders were worried but confident their members would unite to stop Kenney in his tracks.
And then COVID-19 crashed the party.
It wasn’t peace in our time
The government pulled in its claws, made a temporary truce with the United Nurses of Alberta, and all seemed well with the labour relations world.
It wasn’t, of course.
The government quickly resumed its war with doctors and over the ensuing months used the public’s exhaustion with COVID-19 restrictions to argue for a return to life as normal-ish.
For Albertans that meant eating out, seeing a movie and having someone other than their mother cut their hair.
For the Kenney government, it meant returning to a pre-pandemic agenda of slashing government spending and fighting with public sector workers. And announcing the cutting of 11,000 health support positions.
As far as Kenney is concerned, he has history on his side.
Over the years, some provinces have welcomed unions, others have tolerated unions. Alberta has actively fought against the formation of unions.
Under Ralph Klein, for example, Alberta arguably had the country’s most oppressive labour laws that undermined the right to strike and the right to form a bargaining unit.
Alberta — Canada’s richest province — paid workers the lowest minimum wage in the country.
Despite that, Alberta has been spared massive or regular labour unrest.
Thanks to a booming economy.
Consequently, labour leaders would be driven a little batty to realize their union members were as likely as the general public to vote for a Progressive Conservative government. Those unionized workers, especially those in the energy sector, were happy to reward the government during good times.
Oh, there have been some major labour battles. In 2002, for example, 21,000 teachers staged the largest labour disruption in the province’s history by walking off the job as part of a legal 13-day province-wide strike. The Klein government ordered them back only to have that order overturned by the courts. (Alberta Conservative governments of the past had a record of taking unions to court, only to lose).
We haven’t seen a nurses’ strike in Alberta for more than 30 years, probably because the government had declared nurses essential workers who were denied the right to walk off the job. That right was reinstated by the courts in 2015.
In 2017, the one-term NDP government introduced the province’s first major overhaul of workplace rules in 30 years by, among other things, simplifying how unions could be formed and allowing workers to take unpaid sick leave without being fired.
Kenney knows his audience
The UCP government has kept some of those benefits but has also undercut the ability of unions to organize and collect dues.
When it comes to fighting unions, Kenney knows his audience.
Alberta is not a union friendly province. In fact, according to an online business data company, Statista, in 2019, Alberta had the lowest level of unionised workers in the country at 24.6 per cent. The national average is 30 per cent. Quebec has the highest rate at 39 per cent.
As always, Kenney is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Ralph Klein, who cut government spending, privatized government services and went to war with public sector unions during an economic downturn more than 25 years ago. However, Klein knew when to ease up when, for example, he was faced with a mass walkout by health support workers and nurses in 1995.
Unlike Klein, Kenney is not one to acknowledge making a mistake or admit to taking things too far.
And unlike Klein, Kenney has declared war on doctors, reignited a fight with nurses, and announced a mass privatization of health jobs during a pandemic.
Union leaders are warning of more labour unrest, including province-wide disruptions.
Kenney is betting on history, believing that non-unionized Albertans won’t rally behind unionized public sector workers.
But as Kenney likes to say, we’re in uncharted territory nowadays.
Albertans have never been as dependent upon our unionized health-care workers as we are now.