Speech to CUPE Alberta Provincial Convention

Ghostwritten for D’Arcy Lanovaz, President of CUPE Alberta

Sisters and brothers, we’ve had great triumphs and large disappointments since I stood before you in Medicine Hat at our last convention. Looking back to that convention, it’s hard to believe that only one year has passed. Many of the delegates left the convention energized, ready to take on the task of improving the lives of all of our members. So, I would like to start with some good news.

To put it simply: The right to collective bargaining is stronger than ever in this country, thanks to the work of your union.

Last June, CUPE participated in one of the biggest victories the Canadian labour movement has seen for generations.

And because I think we are fuelled by our stories, I am going to tell you the story of how it happened. I promise there will be minimal legalese. I want you to to know that this was labour history in the making, and you were all a part of it.

Five years ago, the BC Government passed something called ‘The Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act’. The Act was passed literally in the middle of the night without any meaningful consultation with unions before it became law. It was nearly 3,000 words of anti-labour legislation. I’ll read you some of the highlights:

“A collective agreement between the Health Employers Association of British Columbia and a trade union representing employees in the health sector must not contain a provision that in any manner restricts, limits or regulates the right of a health sector employer to contract outside of the collective agreement for the provision of non-clinical services.”

A collective agreement must not contain a provision that restricts or limits a health sector employer from laying off an employee, […] or provides an employee with bumping options other than the bumping options set out in the regulations.”

And finally:

A collective agreement that conflicts or is inconsistent with [the above] is void to the extent of the conflict or inconsistency.”

As I said earlier, I don’t want this to get lost in legalese. What all of those excerpts meant was that the government tore up our collective agreements in B.C. They allowed the employer to contract out jobs left and right, and removed any protection our members had fought so hard to enshrine in the agreements.

Sisters and brothers, the passing of this bill resulted in the layoff of 8,000 CUPE members in a province right next door. Cleaning, dietary and other hospital support services in the province’s largest population centres were contracted out to multinational corporations which in turn slashed wages by half.

The legislation has also encouraged the chronic flipping of commercial contracts between long-term care operators and their sub-contractors as they seek to undermine collective bargaining and keep wages low.

Your union wouldn’t stand for this. So we mounted a fight. And it wasn’t a quick one, or an easy one.

Our charter challenge was dismissed by the Supreme Court of B.C. in September 2003 and by the Appeal Court of BC in July 2004. But in 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada granted our leave to appeal the latter court’s decision and heard the case in February 2006.

Over five years after elected officials passed Bill 29 while their constituents slept, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled: “We conclude that the guarantee of freedom of association protects the capacity of members of labour unions to engage in collective bargaining on workplace issues.”

This was a fantastic moment for the labour movement in Canada. And there are a few reasons why it is important that we talk about it today. First and foremost, I want you know the value of being part of an organization with the history, principles, and resources of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

I’m not going to mince words; this was an expensive victory. But CUPE knew it was a fight we had to fight if we were going to ensure that our rights would be enshrined in the Charter. Not every union would have been able to take on this fight the way CUPE did.

We’ve had challenges with raids in the past, and those challenges still exist. Years after being kicked out of the House of Labour for raiding our members, the same groups who made targets of us have now set their sites on the Steelworkers, and the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers. Those who want to raid us claim that it’s best to keep all of our dues in Alberta, to not fight these national fights.

But the Bill 29 battle is not one that any of us could have won on our own. None of our fights are fights are. That is why we are members of a union. To be greater than the sum of our parts. And this victory is an example of what we can do together.

We have a collective strength that is a force to be reckoned with. As CUPE members, we can all have access to a Strike Fund and a Defence Fund that our dues contribute to. In their wisdom, delegates in past years at National Convention created a National Strike Fund to ensure that all members have support and protection during tough bargaining rounds. They also created a National Defence Fund to ensure that our members would have support when engaging in campaigns, regional initiatives and political actions, or if you prefer, “political strikes”. We reaffirmed our commitment to this fund at our National Convention in October. A Strike Fund that was $40 million dollars strong in June 2007 had fallen to $29 million by December. Why? Because CUPE Locals stood their ground in Vancouver and Quebec City.

As members of CUPE, we share in our struggles, and we share in our successes.

I tell you these stories to remind you of that.

But I also tell it to you to remind you of how vulnerable we are to government whims. Eighty-three people are sitting in Edmonton right now, making decisions that affect all of us. This legislation that I’ve been talking about is proof of what a provincial government can do to its public employees.

Whether you participate in the political process or not, there is no way to inoculate yourself from the fact that these 83 individuals can wipe away all of our bargaining work with the stroke of a pen.

Make no mistake: The saga of Bill 29 ends happily, but it also ends 5 years and almost half a million dollars later. It ends 8,000 jobs later. It ends hundreds of thousands in lost
wages later.

What we need to do as union activists is make sure legislation like this isn’t passed in the first place. We need to keep anti-labour governments out of office.

And I have to tell you, sisters and brothers, in this province, we’re not doing a very good job of that. Just two weeks ago we let the Conservatives walk away with an 11th majority government. They were able to get 87% of the seats in the legislature, with only 22% of eligible voters supporting them.

Why? Because almost 60% of us didn’t even bother to vote. Sixty per cent. This was the lowest turnout in Canadian electoral history.

We had a real opportunity for change in this province, and we let it slip away. I think over the next little while we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Namely: “What happened?” and “Are we doing what we’re doing today because it’s the smart way to do it, or because it’s what we were doing yesterday?

Political action is an extremely important area for Labour to remain involved. But the results from this last election obviously reveal an urgent need for us to review how we engage in politics. There is no question, we must review the last election, and formulate a new strategy. We cannot continue to engage in tactics that have not worked over the past decades. As a movement, we must be willing to challenge old assumptions, and work to revitalize our political action.

All during the election, editorial after editorial discussed how low the energy was around the campaigns. After the election was called, much was made over the fact that for the first time in many years, a large number of voters would be going into this campaign undecided as to who they would vote for. Ultimately it seems like the majority of these people never got around to making up their minds.

It’s not really difficult to understand why many voters were feeling too overwhelmed to fully engage in the political process. Sometimes just living in Alberta can seem like a full time job: Our cities are well over capacity and our infrastructure is in crisis; Childcare is both unavailable and unaffordable; Quality of life is declining while the cost of living is on a constant increase.

While the hum of this election went on around us, we were focusing on trying to pay our bills, and look after our families.

I know these things are hard work. But we can’t ever let ourselves use them as excuses to not participate in a crucial process again.

Because the danger of an overwhelmed electorate is that it’s easy for big decisions to sneak through without the right questions being asked until it’s too late. We’re witnessing that right now, in the discussions about royalty rates that made up such a large part of the discourse this election. A hodgepodge of deals were made several decades ago, and only after Albertans lost over a billion dollars in oil and gas revenue did the Conservative government –who made these deals in the first place — even initiate their flawed plan to re-evaluate the system.

This same government is now making hundreds of billions of dollars worth of similarly bad deals across the province, by way of privatizing public assets. And just like with lost oil and gas revenues, the true cost of these deals might not be known for generations. Why? Well, these are private business arrangements. This means the details are confidential.

Albertans are unable to learn the financial details that have been agreed to on our behalf, using our money.

What we do know is this: the Stelmach government has signed on to allow private financing and major maintenance of 32 schools in Edmonton and Calgary.

This means that the government is squandering the borrowing rates available to the province of Alberta, thereby wasting assets that could enable the building of even more schools. This also means that when something major goes wrong with the schools in question, we’re going to have to rely on multinational corporations to get around to doing the repairs.

This winter CUPE released a report called “Doing the Math”, about the deal to build these new schools. Anyone who has given P3s even a cursory glance knows they reduce transparency and accountability, but our report demonstrated that they also increase costs. We showed that by squandering the borrowing rates available to the province of Alberta, the government was wasting assets that could enable the building of even more schools.

And yet the Education Minister said he wasn’t even going to read our report. He said “I’m so sick of critics who get all the play and represent only five per cent of the population. These guys aren’t the ones at the ground level sweeping the floors, they’re sitting in an expensive office somewhere on a nice leather chair at their $100,000 a year job and they’re just trying to keep it that way.”

He was re-elected, if you were wondering. And I still don’t have a leather chair.

The arrogance of this government, combined with their commitment to allowing private interest to take over public services is a very dangerous combination for all Albertans.

But the Conservatives don’t seem concerned about this. Maybe they feel they’ll never be made accountable to this plan. Maybe they feel like parents are so desperate for new schools they won’t care that they are getting fewer of them for more money and less accountability. Maybe they feel that — much like the architects of the early royalty arrangements — they’ll have long since retired before they can be taken to task for what they’ve done.

What ever they were thinking during the election, we proved them right. We re-elected them.

It will be our kids who pay for this. They’ll be the ones attending schools that rely on overseas businesses to keep the heaters working. They’ll be the ones footing the tax bill that ensures private profit.

To show you the motivation of our government, I’d like to share with you another story. This one about our provincial pension plan. Last November, the Board of the Local Authorities Pension Plan was informed that their way of making decisions on your plan violated provincial legislation. Prior to November, labour had an effective veto on any changes to our pension plan. Now, we are outnumbered by the employer groups and government.

When we challenged this change, the government threw up their hands and said, “it’s the law”. Well then, I say, change the law. They changed the law in the middle of the night to allow 12 year olds to work in restaurants, they can change the law to protect our pension!

Let me be clear on this point, our pension plan is not in danger today. When Tom retires at the end of the month, his pension will be secure, he will retire in dignity. The danger lies in 5 years or 10 years from now. The employer groups and the government have always been in favour of watering down the pension, and they are now in a position to do just that! Those of us retiring in 2 or 3 years may be safe, but those of us retiring in 10 or 15 years do not have that security. We must not allow this to happen.

I know that in a decade from now, we’ll be shaking our heads at the missed opportunity for public investment, and wondering how it was that business special interests groups were able to take control of something that should have belonged to all Albertans in the first place.

I know you care about what happens to this province. You would be here if you didn’t. You wouldn’t do the work you do if you didn’t. There is a lot to be proud of in this room.

CUPE Alberta has some of the strongest collective agreements in the country. And the credit for these agreements goes to our locals. But even with agreements as strong as we have, we’re not invulnerable.

A strike could happen to any of us. Look at the situation in BC. That strike has cost 11 million dollars. Look at our sisters and brothers in Quebec City. They will be speaking to us about their struggle later on today. They have been locked out since April of last year.

It is easy to slip into a feeling of permanence around Alberta’s currently booming economy, but we need to be looking ahead, and making sure we are prepared to deal with the inevitable bust that will eventually follow this boom.

And the bust will come. There are few certainties in life … death, taxes and that an economic bust will inevitably follow a boom. If we in Alberta have learned anything, it is this fact.

You know, I was talking with a friend recently and he said, “you don’t fix a roof when its raining.” Wise advice. Advice that our government should heed. You don’t build a strong public sector — you don’t build new infrastructure — in an economic bust. You do it in the good times. The conservative government, the government who prides themselves on good fiscal management, has been unable to grasp this simple concept.

A surplus that currently sits over four billion dollars, is not enough to keep the Stelmach government from making moves towards privatizing education, hospitals, water, and other public resources. This is something we need to be extremely wary of, as both public-sector workers, and people who live in communities that will be affected by such deals.

And we need to ask ourselves: If the privatization movement is gaining this much momentum in the current economy, how much speed it will pick up when the province is back in financial peril?

In the 1990s, we were told that Albertans needed to suffer through “short pain for long-term gain”. Services and programs were going to be cut back, but if we were able to tough it out, all of us would eventually reap the rewards of this austerity.

That’s not quite how it has played out. The surplus is growing by tens of millions of dollars every day, but most Albertans are not seeing a similar improvement in their quality of life.

The laundry-list of this government’s failures is never ending.

In 2005 the Auditor General released a report on the conditions of senior care in Alberta. Many of you will remember Marie Geddes, an 86 year-old-women who was so desperate to focus public attention on the conditions in seniors’ facilities across the province that she stopped eating. Marie was a diabetic, and even though she was eventually forced to start eating again, her health never fully recovered from her days of starvation.

In response to her sacrifice, the Conservatives put together a review committee, developed recommendations, and … did nothing. Here we are today with no significant changes to the working conditions and compensation to front line senior care workers.

Another concern of ours is the use of temporary foreign workers, which is now creeping into the public sector. More and more, we are hearing employers wring their hands about the “labour shortage”. What they actually mean is a shortage of people who are unwilling to work for the wages and conditions these employers see fit to offer. But these employers are dealing with this shortage just like the private sector does. They are importing cheap labour on a temporary basis that they can then dispose of when the labour market shifts back to their favour.

Sisters and brothers, it’s never been more clear. We need to ramp up our political action. We need to recognize that what we are doing is not working. We need to find out what will.

Because I still believe that’s possible for the voters of Alberta to elect a government that will finally do what ours hasn’t: Demonstrate vision and leadership. Show a commitment to funding and maintaining infrastructure. And tell the big business know that they will not be setting the public agenda.

But I can’t make that happen, and Brother Paul can’t make that happen, sister Trudy can’t make that happen, … none of us can do it on our own.

You know, there is an ancient curse, that says “May you live in interesting times.” Clearly, we live in very interesting times. But the true measure of character is not how we behave when things go right, it is how we deal with adversity.

We can sit back and lament about our disappointments, or we can strive to get the best possible wages and working conditions for our members.

But we must also look beyond the workplace, to build strong communities, so that our lives outside of work have true meaning and value.

This is a challenge we should all relish. Let’s all have a great convention.

Thank you.