By Merryn Edwards, Communications Staff
Government employees brought AUPE into being in 1976 by struggling for their right to form an independent union. In 2016, AUPE celebrates its 40th Anniversary as major developments impacting the rights of our members are on the horizon
Rights, restrictions and resistance: AUPE then and now
“When I started in 1970, we had no maternity leave, we had very little vacation leave, we had no long term disability. As a married woman, when I started, you couldn’t belong to the pension plan.” Lorraine Ellis was 21 years old when she joined the department of Health and Social Development as a records room clerk.
It was the era of manual typewriters, Gestetner machines that created triplicate carbon copies, and, for women workers, a lot of discrimination. “You had to quit when you got pregnant. You couldn’t wear pants. We had to wear skirts. It was a blessed day when they finally said we could wear pantsuits, but we had to have a matching jacket and pants with a shirt.”
At that time, AUPE didn’t exist yet, and its precursor, the Civil Service Association of Alberta (CSAA) had little power to represent the interests of government employees. But as the public sector grew through the 1960s, government employees became increasingly vocal in their demands for an independent trade union capable of effectively representing them.
AUPE’s Centennial Committee is looking back at that volatile time, gathering the stories of people who were there. Gail Iler, Lorraine Ellis and Ed Kopchenko are some of AUPE’s life members who have shared their experiences.
Kopchenko started with the forestry service in 1961 at a rate of $1.75/hour, frequently working long hours in remote locations with no overtime pay or allowance for rough bush conditions where he faced major health and safety concerns. He described traveling up the Athabasca River on a boat: “Well the damn thing would roar. I came out of it one time and had to stop and cut a hole in the sleeping bag to get some cotton to plug my ears up, my ears started to hurt so bad.”
Hired in 1967 as a social worker in Grande Prairie, Iler also worked long hours with no overtime pay and had to use her own vehicle without compensation. “I was green as grass. I didn’t know a thing,” said Iler. “They didn’t put me in any training, but thank God I was with people who were very understanding.” But before long, Iler’s frontline role connected her to her community: “I got up there and got involved with the job and got to know the kids and got to know the families and traveled around the area.”
These stories help illustrate a larger national shift described by historian Desmond Morton: “By the 1960s, a generation that regarded a civil service position as the height of reasonable ambition was rapidly overtaken by post-1945 employees for whom a lifetime of lower wages, unquestioning obedience and official secrecy was too high a price to pay for job security and superannuation. […] Old and familiar grievances, from institutional over-crowding to female employment ghettoes, were no longer an inevitable feature of working in a provincial mental hospital, jail or office but evils to be corrected.”
Yet despite this cultural and generational shift, Alberta government workers in the 60s and early 70s did not yet have an organization capable of dealing with their concerns. “If you had a problem, so be it, you go figure it out,” said Kopchenko. “There was no steward or anybody to handle it for you.”
Although CSAA members paid dues – “about two bits a month” – the legal restrictions CSAA faced when it tried to raise concerns meant there was little to be done if the government did not agree. “We talked but there was no real negotiations,” said Kopchenko. “The government said that they passed a law in parliament saying that they’ll increase the wages 2 per cent or 3 per cent or 5 per cent, and that was it.”
Nevertheless, the CSAA did provide a venue for workers to come together. When Ellis attended her first CSAA meeting with another female co-worker, there were only about three or four women in a crowd of about 400 men. “I said to her, ‘I think we’re in the wrong meeting.’”
Many of the members in her division had trade union backgrounds in the United Kingdom: “I heard about their days across the ocean how their unions fought for rights, and I became interested.”
One of those English trade unionists was Bill Broad, who became president of CSAA and led the organization through its transition to AUPE. Broad passed away last year at the age of 93, but fortunately some of his story is recorded in an oral history interview conducted in 2005.
Broad left school at 14 to help bring in money after his father died. At 16, he participated in his first strike at a Rolls Royce plant. “In Britain it was different,” he remembered. “The shop steward was a powerful individual. He could take you out on strike just by saying, ‘Let’s all go out.’” Broad was first elected President of the CSAA in 1972, campaigning against the close relationship between the association and the government.
The CSAA hoped to find an ally in Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government, which had replaced the Social Credit party in 1971 after 36 years in power. Shortly before that historic election, Lougheed wrote a letter to the CSAA, promising that “a Progressive Conservative government would move very quickly to give the Civil Service a much broader and definitive act which would give the members the same basic bargaining rights enjoyed by organized labour in the Province.” However, Lougheed’s government only amended legislation to implement compulsory binding arbitration. The move fell far short of the promise to give provincial employees the same bargaining rights enjoyed by other organized workers, in particular the right to strike.
In 1973, CSAA began consciously attempting to transform itself into a bona fide union, affiliating to the Canadian Labour Congress and initiating four illegal strikes, culminating in a massive three-day strike by 12,500 General Service workers on Oct. 1- 3, 1974. These strikes in defiance of the government and restrictive legislation were successful in securing significant wage increases and other improvements and were considered a rite of passage.
Ellis remembers getting caught up in the excitement of the move toward forming a union: “I was 21 years old, and I just kind of went, wow. I came from a very Christian home, very hardworking, and when I got involved, my whole family thought that I had become communist.”
Lougheed’s government repeatedly stonewalled the CSAA’s calls for legislative changes. However, prior to the 1975 provincial election, Lougheed promised to establish a joint task force of government and CSAA representatives to investigate and propose solutions to the growing provincial public service labour crisis, successfully securing labour peace during the election campaign.
In 1976, acting on the interim recommendations of the joint task force, the government repealed the CSAA Act, which allowed the CSAA to become a full-fledged trade union. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees was created the same day and held its founding convention the following year. AUPE was born, but its future was anything but secure.
Repealing the CSAA Act was one of very few examples of agreement between the two sides of the task force. Internal government documents would eventually reveal the government side never had any intention of extending the right to strike to its employees, a fundamental premise of CSAA/AUPE’s participation in the process.
In the end, the union and government sides of the task force issued separate reports, and the government report formed the basis of the Public Service Employee Relations Act, or PSERA, introduced in May 1977. Ellis remembers the act as “a slap in the face.”
PSERA barred government employees from striking and introduced fines of up to $10,000 for any person who caused or attempted to cause a strike. The legislation compelled public sector unions to follow a compulsory arbitration process, but excluded crucial issues from arbitration, such as work assignment and evaluation, training, promotion, transfers and pensions – items over which the government retained sole authority.
Yet despite this major setback, AUPE made significant gains for its members in the early years of its existence. Oral history participants identified wins such as overtime pay, a grievance procedure, a northern subsistence allowance, compensation for parking and the use of personal vehicles for work, and disability insurance as some of the most significant gains.
In 1980, a young AUPE would mount another successful wildcat strike, in direct opposition to and defiance of PSERA. It was dubbed the “apples and oranges” strike after comments by government representatives that MLA salaries, which had recently gone up 47 per cent, could not be compared to the wages of government workers.
“As AUPE enters its 40th year, the future of PSERA and the rights of provincial employees are once again at issue,” said AUPE Secretary-Treasurer Jason Heistad. A landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling found blanket bans on strikes by public sector employees violate fundamental rights protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. An Alberta court subsequently ordered the government to rewrite offending sections of PSERA and the Alberta Labour Relations Code.
“The history of AUPE is intimately bound up with the history of government-imposed restrictions on our rights,” said AUPE Vice-President and Centennial Committee Chair Glen Scott. “We must learn from the struggles of our predecessors to better represent our members and stand up for the rights of working people in Alberta.”
Read More →