Alberta unions meet attacks head on; even talk of general strike

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan speaks to protest rally outside UCP meeting

ALBERTA UNIONS ARE KNUCKLING UP. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney left them no choice.

Kenney went after unions just days after he got elected last April; then he doubled down in his October 24 budget by again making union members his prime targets, calling for massive public sector job cuts, including nurses, teachers and university staff.

The unions are punching back. Hard. And they aren’t alone.

Call to ‘Resist Kenney’s Cuts’

The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is rallying it’s members and the public with a high-intensity campaign to “Resist Kenney’s Cuts”. It’s not a hard sell. The Kenney cuts hit and hurt so many—and not always with any obvious reason.

Why, for example, cut aid to students, the disabled poor and to people suffering from colitis? Such indiscriminate actions create spontaneous outrage and resistance.

Around 100 people braved the chilly morning weather December 1 to attend a rally, organized by Crohn’s and Colitis Canada.

“To me it’s asinine that I’m even here having this conversation,” said Nick Arrand, a 35-year-old Crohn’s patient. “The government should have no right to tell you what medications to take.”

 Several hundred people showed up for a vibrant lunch hour rally at the University of Calgary November 28.

It’s bound to get worse

Barbara Silva was there to represent Save Our Students Alberta, a public education advocacy group. Silva said it might take time for students to understand the repercussions of this budget.

“If you’re not angry yet, it’s OK. Give it time, because the next round of budget cuts are going to get worse and life is going to become incredibly expensive,” Silva said. “Basic human rights – like the right to an education, the right to health care, the right to a safe workplace – are going to become a scarcity in this province. So if you’re not ready to fight today, we’ll wait for you because it’s going to get worse.”

Many, many Albertans are ready to fight today. They have already attended standing room only Resist the Cuts meetings in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, and Grande Prairie—with many more to come. Clear and strong evidence of broad, spontaneous popular support to force Kenney to scrap budget provisions that include:

  • a cut of more than 16,000 public sector jobs by 2023
  • possible wage rollbacks to as many as 250,000 public service workers
  • a 22.5% rise in tuition fees
  • an increase in interest rates on student debt
  • a rise in personal income tax
  • a cut to various income assistance programs for low-income households
  • a cut of $40 million in tax benefits to middle-income families with children
  • a freeze on K-12 education funding until 2022, even though enrollment is projected to increase by almost 9% by then
  • a cut of 13% to early childhood education
  • a 9% cut to funding for municipalities

On top of all that, Kenney also wants to cut 750 nursing jobs.

General strike a real possibility

The number and size of the Resist Kenney’s Cuts public rallies is an indication that what is happening in Alberta is not “politics as usual”. In fact, some are already hinting it may turn out to be more about class struggle than politics as we know it.

For example, there were chants for a general strike from some in a crowd of 700 people outside the United Conservative Party (UCP) annual general meeting in Calgary on November 30. The crowd had gathered to protest the coming  public sector job cuts, including nurses, teachers and university staff.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan put on a tuque commemorating the 100th anniversary of the famous 1919 general strike in Winnipeg.

“I thought it would be appropriate for today,” he told the crowd.

A general strike is an idea that keeps coming up. The fact that union leaders do not dismiss it out of hand only confirms how committed to their cause the unions and their allies are.

Whether or not it comes to that, and whether or not it makes a difference will reveal a lot about how we truly want to live in Canada today.

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