(And how our union helped shape Alberta)
Growing militancy among provincial employees leads to birth of AUPE.
For decades, Alberta’s Social Credit government treated public employees as servants. In fact, it’s what the government called its workers – civil servants. There was an expectation government employees should be grateful to have jobs and accept whatever wages and working conditions their employer chose. The government assumed public employees had no right to strike and that their right to bargain did not go much beyond begging.
This image of obedient servant began to unravel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Growing dissatisfaction with wages and working conditions led public employees and their organization, the Civil Service Association of Alberta (CSAA), into uncharted territory of job actions, civil disobedience and strikes.
The first salvos in the conflict were a series of demonstrations by Alberta Liquor Control Board (ALCB) staff against wage rates imposed by the legislature in 1971. These culminated in the largest demonstration in CSAA’s history when 500 rallied on April 15.
However, it was a wildcat strike by correctional officers that set CSAA on the path of becoming a bona fide union. Unhappy with poor wages and understaffing, correctional officers walked off the job Aug. 27, 1971, three days before the provincial election. It was CSAA’s first strike, and it helped unseat the Social Credit Party that had been in power since 1935.
Sadly for public employees, the incoming Lougheed government was not much better. It failed to keep promises of full labour rights and began making changes to wages and working conditions that enraged workers. However, public employees had begun to realize their ability to resist attacks through collective actions.
When the government reclassified its skilled trades workers, costing many tradespersons money, they answered by having study sessions in 1973 that took them off the job for long periods, and by organizing a major rally when the legislature resumed that fall. In the face of their growing protest, the Lougheed government backed down and rescinded the reclassification scheme.
1,200 psychiatric nurses and aides in Crown hospitals and institutions began job actions over an arbitrary ruling that took away vacation entitlements. After voting down an employer compromise, the workers won full reinstatement of their rights.
ALCB workers went on strike against imposed wage rates. They stayed out for 10 days until a court injunction forced them back to work, but their strike won them a much bigger wage increase than the employer offered.
12,500 government general service workers went on strike for three days, protesting the government’s unilateral wage increase of $50 per month, just before they were supposed to negotiate a wage reopener with CSAA.
The benefits of collective action were not lost on the membership of CSAA. When they took strike action in 1973 and 1974, they won important gains, despite the constant government attempts to punish workers and CSAA during the disputes. A growing confidence in their ability to create change was crucial to the creation of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees in 1976.
CSAA president Bill Broad credited the job actions with laying the groundwork for a new union at the November 1974 convention: “This year the CSAA became the union of provincial employees in Alberta.”
AUPE’s three-week apples and oranges strike in July 1980 surprised everyone, except the members who walked.
It happened four years after AUPE was born and three years after the Alberta government passed the most regressive piece of labour legislation in Canada at the time. Not only did the Public Service Employees Relations Act (PSERA) ban strikes by provincial government employees and others in its jurisdiction, it also excluded thousands of workers and set up a system of interest arbitration rigged against the union.
After Lougheed promised in 1971 that, if elected, he would grant provincial employees the same bargaining rights as other workers. By 1979, frustrations peaked and the union’s convention that year pledged to make the upcoming term a test for negotiations.
AUPE held strike seminars and kicked off a massive information campaign across Alberta. Soon after convention, Alberta’s finance minister issued “guidelines” limiting wage increases in negotiations to between 7.5 and 9 per cent.
When asked how he could justify limiting wage increases for public employees when MLAs awarded themselves a 47-per-cent wage increase, he answered it was “comparing apples to oranges.”
That quip would haunt the government. Over 3,000 “apples” went on strike, aware their actions were illegal. It began with 186 Alberta Liquor Control Board workers walking out, soon followed by 1,000 correctional officers at nine sites. Almost 2,000 clerical and administrative support staff walked out from the law courts, land titles, motor vehicles and the Alberta Health Care Insurance Commission on July 16.
The walkouts were strategic, limited to places where they would have maximum impact. Lawyers and real estate agents were apoplectic. The RCMP was over-extended in the prisons and the legal system was all but stymied.
Members’ determination became clear when courts began to issue injunctions in the second and third weeks of the strike. Most picketers refused to accept, and injunctions were dropped at their feet.
AUPE staff and members stood together on the steps of the Edmonton courthouse, clapping hands and chanting support slogans, while a riot squad assembled across the street.
The “apples” won that strike. Not only did they achieve wage increases in excess of the government guidelines, but the union also disputed a bad law.
In 1987, AUPE challenged PSERA in the Supreme Court but was unsuccessful. However, in 2015 the court reversed its stand, laying the basis for Alberta’s Bill 4. It took 40 years, but AUPE members now have the same bargaining rights as most other workers in the province and public sector workers across the country.
Alberta was already on the path of privatization when Ralph Klein came to power in 1992. But it was Klein who pressed ahead with austerity as Alberta suffered the hangover of an oil price shock and economic downturn. The costs were dramatic.
Many services became hollowed out shells, others sold completely, and thousands of public sector jobs disappeared. Critical infrastructure crumbled as it suffered years of neglect.
Carol Anne Dean, elected AUPE president in 1993, remembers the times as some of the darkest for both the union and province. “It was like bombs were going off everywhere, every day, all the time,” she recalls.
Klein was determined to slay the province’s deficit, and for his Progressive Conservative government, that meant widespread cuts and privatization.
The Tory government began with Alberta’s liquor industry in 1993 – the first liquor privatization scheme in the country – promising more selection for better prices.
But the reality was not as rosy. Studies found privatization led to a significant decline in government revenues, more liquor store break-ins, increased liquor sales to minors and higher prices.
Klein also pushed public sector workers to take major concessions, including five-per-cent wage rollbacks. The government stoked a culture of fear as workers became convinced they’d have to accept a pay cut or be out of a job completely.
There was a mood of being under constant attack. But as attacks mounted, union activists pushed back. When they learned of plans to privatize Alberta’s transportation services, they made calls, held meetings and staged rallies. But before long the province lost control of highway maintenance. The quality of services, like snow plowing, fell rapidly and hundreds of good-paying jobs were lost.
Former AUPE president Doug Knight saw his local in Peace River dwindle from 600 members to barely 50. After highway maintenance was dismantled, Klein’s government did the same with driver’s registry and provincial park services.
Before long the union’s membership shrunk from 50,000 to 34,000, but in a lifesaving show of solidarity, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) helped AUPE out of a financial bind.
“Remaining staff and members gave it their all,” Dean says, crediting them with AUPE’s survival and the victories the union would go on to win.
It was hard but there were successes – important ones that had real, tangible effects.
The Peace River jail was one of Klein’s early targets in the mid-1990s.
The jail employed roughly 130 people, so when Klein set his sights on it, the community reacted swiftly. A crucial component of the struggle was a simple but massively effective campaign.
Small blue stickers were put on currency stating, “This payment made possible by Union Labour.” The stickers were soon seen throughout the community.
The point was clear. Without those jobs, this cash might not flow so easily. It worked and the Klein government soon backed off. But it quickly came for a vulnerable group of people: children in government care.
Guy Smith, a youth counsellor and AUPE vice-president, knew first-hand the importance of ensuring child welfare services remained public.
As rumours flew over plans to privatize and regionalize child welfare services, Smith and other AUPE social workers began to speak out and hold rallies. The message resonated with Albertans – so much so that the province’s Child and Family Services Minister of the day, Mike Cardinal, instituted a gag order on its employees.
The government’s heavy-handedness backfired as the gag order became the subject of constant news articles and scathing editorials.
Klein was forced to stop his plans and core child welfare and protection services remained public.
“The victories of the Klein era were limited and the losses large, but the enduring lesson shouldn’t be forgotten,” says Dean. “Challenging times could be around the corner."
“The Klein era was not the first time I witnessed the pendulum swing,” she says. “No one should ever be complacent. Things can change overnight.”
In a move that’s become all too common, Alberta Health Services (AHS) sent out an unexpected press release late on a Friday afternoon in August 2009, announcing the “evolution of community-based treatment” for people with mental health issues, which meant the closure of most of the beds at Alberta Hospital Edmonton (AHE), northern Alberta’s only acute care mental health hospital.
Immediate meetings between AUPE and AHS management proved fruitless. The decision to close the beds came from “a very high level,” the union was told, and closing the beds would allow AHS to engage in “consultation” (albeit after the fact) with the community on treatment options. When it became clear that working behind closed doors would be ineffective, AUPE president Doug Knight struck a committee to take the fight for AHE public.
Press releases; community outreach campaigns; petitions; email form letters; websites; rallies; town halls; print, radio and television commercials; social media and collaboration with stakeholders and community groups were used to fight the closure. While today these are standard tools in AUPE campaigns, they were all fairly new back in 2009, and with the Save Alberta Hospital Edmonton campaign, AUPE began to realize the importance of walking the walk as defender of the public services Albertans rely on.
AUPE’s campaign underscored that the fight was about more than just members’ jobs; it was about the specialized services provided at AHE the community required. “Alberta Hospital Edmonton is an essential facility, no mater how many patients are moved into the community,” said Knight at the time. “This hospital is worth fighting for and that’s what AUPE is trying to do. We’re speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
It took some time – six months of non-stop pressure – but eventually AHS, and by extension the government, rescinded its plans to close the beds at AHE. It was almost a total victory. The geriatric unit still moved into Villa Caritas near the Misericordia Hospital, displacing seniors housed at the Edmonton General who had been fundraising for the facility for years. But even today, Alberta Hospital Edmonton remains open to help those in crisis. Lessons learned during the Save AHE campaign also helped AUPE successfully fight back against a myriad of attacks in the next decade.
During the height of conflict with Alison Redford’s PC government over budget betrayals and attacks on pensions, collective bargaining rights and service cuts, AUPE’s provincial executive held an emergency debate on how to ensure the Alberta government pay a political price for its sustained attacks.
The result was the Preparing for Change campaign, which saw significant funds, resources, energy and time dedicated to the operation’s goal: to have a direct and significant influence on the outcome of the 2015 provincial election.
Publicly, the campaign would be known as The Alberta Way.
In the months before Alberta’s 2015 election, the mood for change was palpable. Voters had grown disenchanted with the long-ruling Progressive Conservative dynasty, in power for nearly 44 years, and growing more entitled and out of touch with each successive premier.
When Jim Prentice entered the scene in 2014, it was the beginning of the end for the Tory government’s stranglehold on power – they just didn’t know it yet. Months later, after the Prentice government helped orchestrate a mass floor-crossing by the official Opposition Wildrose, led by that party’s former leader Danielle Smith, it looked like voters had had enough.
Rachel Notley’s NDP would go on to topple the Tory dynasty in that historic race. But the NDP didn’t get there alone. A groundswell of Albertans demanding change grew and AUPE captured the mood in its Alberta Way campaign. The public wanted politicians who had respect for public services.
AUPE – along with campaign spokesman Albert Howell, an Alberta-born comedian and writer – took the province by storm with that message in the summer of 2014, building momentum among Albertans. AUPE representatives at summer festivals across the province asked everyday Albertans to do something easy: If a politician were in front of them today, what would they ask?
The questions Albertans had for their politicians quickly spread on social media, revealing serious concerns voters had about the PC government.
The summer tour was coupled with a simultaneous ad campaign on TV and online. Alberta Way ads were viewed an astounding 7.5 million times.
But the efforts didn’t end there. Instead, AUPE intensified its advertising campaign promoting The Alberta Way that fall, including additional television ads and a dedicated website to help Albertans understand and participate in what was shaping up to be one of the most important elections in the province’s history.
The Alberta Way website was a one-stop resource for information about where the parties stood. It gave Albertans the ability to debate issues and rank their importance. It made them part of the process, and allowed them to cast an informed vote.
The Alberta Way campaign was a complete success and demonstrated AUPE’s power in mobilizing Albertans of all walks of life to speak truth to power and demand more of their politicians.