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Bottling Solidarity

From the Coca-Cola plant to the Superstore aisles to the University of Calgary medical lab, AUPE members are building pressure by expanding their solidarity

Nov 09, 2021

By Celia Shea, Communications Staff

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“If it’s the Superstore workers that are walking, I go,” says Jane Jordan. “When the posties were out, I tried to go as many times as I possibly could.”

Just recently, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) clerk also walked the line with Boilermakers Union Lodge 146 members, after their employer, steel fabrication giant CESSCO, locked out staff for defending their working conditions.

“Teamsters born and bred,” Jordan comes from a long line of unionists, with relatives in the United Steelworkers as well as the brotherhoods of pipefitters, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and nickel miners. Unionism is in her blood, so she knows that you don’t have to work in the same industry to be in the same union family.

She’s been with AUPE for about 22 years, and even though she’s one of many Local 054 General Support Services (GSS) members facing AHS’s aggressive rollbacks, she always finds time to support other working Albertans.

“At the end of the day, we’re all fighting the exact same thing,” Jordan says. “We’re all fighting for better working conditions, for safer working conditions, for better pay, for better benefits, and living wages. If they come for the private electricians and plumbers, or the store workers, they’re coming for us.”

Her words come as a sharp warning to working people. If we grow apathetic, power will coalesce in the hands of the few. But if we stay strong, greedy bosses who conspire above our heads to bust working conditions, democracy, and local economies, won’t stand a chance against the collective power of a united workforce.

“Premier Kenney knows this, and that’s why he tries so hard to drive a wedge between public-sector and private-sector workers,” says AUPE Secretary-Treasurer Jason Heistad. “He doesn’t want us combining our resources and getting too strong.”

Jason Kenney showed Albertans his shaky hand in July, 2021 when he stated in an interview with the Calgary Sun that Alberta “taxpayers” cannot afford the reasonable wage demands of public-sector workers. This was his sneaky way of blaming the hardships of private-sector employees on the very union members who bandage their arms when they’re injured or smother the forest fires that threaten their towns. Meanwhile he conveniently cloaked the real cause of our pain, corporate greed, which he rewarded with a corporate-tax handout when he took office.

“Premier Kenney knows this, and that’s why he tries so hard to drive a wedge between public-sector and private-sector workers. He doesn’t want us combining our resources and getting too strong.”
Headshot of AUPE Executive Secretary-Treasuer Jason Heistad

Jason Heistad, AUPE Executive Secretary Treasurer

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Heistad says there’s zero chance the big-business beneficiaries of Kenney’s tax cut will pay it forward. “K-Bro’s CEO isn’t going to spend their bonus in my hometown of Innisfail. A local social worker however, will spend his modest paycheque at the market, the pharmacy, or the local bed & breakfast.”

As a small-town guy, Heistad sees how all Albertans, regardless of their employer, fuel the same, shared economy. “Think of all the Alberta teachers who’ve patronized a local business, or the nurses who’ve treated a carpenter’s broken wrist, so she can return to work, or all the retired folks in long-term care, whose private-sector pensions are paying for an AHS housekeeper’s wages. We all make the economy go ‘round.”

On the other hand, the money that the UCP is grubbing from health care, schools and government services is going straight towards CEOs, not local economies. CESSCO is one of many employers benefiting from this corporate welfare. Not surprisingly, the company is still unwilling to pay its staff what they’re worth. Over a year ago today, CESSCO brutally locked out its team of highly skilled welders and boilermakers because they refused to bend to the company’s attacks on their pensions, seniority, and wages.

For the last 14 months, five of those members, all over the age of 51, have been holding the line outside the plant, enduring -40 degrees and +40 degree weather for about 12 hours a day. Every morning, when they pull up to their old workplace, they watch their replacements arrive, ushered into the Edmonton facility on the employer’s corrupted watch.

“It’s taking its toll on us,” says Boilermaker Arno. “I’ve never had high blood pressure…but watching these guys [scabs] go in and work. You get riled up. You get mad.”

Most of the members picketing alongside Arno have been loyal CESSCO employees for 30-plus years. Now, the employer is using public dollars, in the form of the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), to bribe their non-unionized counterparts to drive down working conditions for the entire industry.

If all private-sector workers got organized, no one would be tempted to accept small perks from employers instead of real prosperity. It would be a “win-win” for all Albertans, including AUPE members, says Boilermaker organizer and picket captain Casey Worden. That’s because “collective action and collective bargaining… gives us the ability to afford the services that we expect from a government.”

When private-sector workers have power and push for better compensation, the province benefits from greater income revenue, which supports the public-sector payroll. We share in each other’s prosperity, but this doesn’t stop the UCP from accusing AUPE members of draining the economy — an indictment that AUPE Local 052 member Elaine Pauls calls ridiculous.

She works at the University of Calgary (U of C) as an animal caretaker in the medical labs and knows firsthand that Alberta’s smooth transition into a post-pandemic and post-Petro economy hinges on its willingness to invest in prized public institutions and their staff.

“There’s no way that a lot of these [oil & gas] jobs are coming back — they’ve been automated out, we’re trying to get into renewables, etcetera,” she says, “so those private-sector workers are going to have to be retrained. And where do you go to retrain? Post-secondaries!”

When the government invests in post-secondary employees, they invest in all workers. The same goes for many of our members, whose jobs support Alberta’s whole labour force. In 2018-19 alone, our folks at Alberta Innovates and InnoTech worked on projects that indirectly generated 2,000 private-sector jobs. ATB Financial, which employs over 500 AUPE members, provided advice and online resources for small businesses seeking relief from the COVID-induced chaos. And our members at the GOA’s Alberta Jobs Corp. help Albertans struggling to find employment with job placement in all industries.

To Pauls, public-sector workers are poised to be powerful allies of private-sector employees. This March, she and some of her coworkers joined the striking Coca-Cola employees on their picket line in Calgary to help them battle the beverage behemoth over its relentless subcontracting, which was draining staff of hours and income.

The strike ended in success for the over 260 Teamsters Labour Union 987 members, who not only won better protections against third-party outsourcing, but also a nine-per-cent wage increase over six years, better severance, and better opportunities for truck drivers. Impressed by their strong strike vote — a whopping 94% in favour — Pauls was eager to join the picket line, which proved fertile ground for sharing mobilizing tips.

“Anything that we can learn from other workers in the private sector or the public sector, especially when they win, is something I want to know,” she says, “and it should be of interest to every member.”

Walking a picket line is invaluable because numbers mean strength. For a small group of picketers like the locked-out CESSCO employees, outsider support has been key to building capacity. If it weren’t for the solidarity of the public sector, “there’s no way we’d be making the statement that we’re trying to make,” says Boilermaker Arno.

Plus, “the guys appreciate the chance to return the solidarity that they’ve been shown,” says Worden. On August 11, 2021 the Lodge 146 welders left their post outside CESSCO to help the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) on their day of action. The next day, one of the nurses joined the Boilermaker picket line. That’s the thing about solidarity — once the seed is planted, it grows, and once it starts growing, the possibilities are endless.

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