By Wayne Arthurson,
It’s before dawn on Oct. 26, 2020, on the north sidewalk along Kingsway Avenue outside the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. Angered by Jason Kenney’s plan to eliminate 11,000 of their jobs by privatizing their work, Alberta Health Services (AHS) General Services Support and Nursing Care workers from that hospital fight back by staging a wildcat strike. Word spreads and by noon, Alberta media reports over 2,000 workers have joined the battle against Jason Kenney and the UCP.
That night the Alberta Labour Relations Board deemed the strike illegal and filed their judgement in the courts, exposing strikers to possible criminal prosecution. As a result, the strike came to an end that night. But the impact of this fight reverberates throughout the province to this day, and will continue to do so far into the future.
“We inspired a lot of people,” says AUPE Vice President Bobby-Joe Borodey. “We created an abundance of awareness that healthcare consists of more than just registered nurses and doctors, such as Licensed Practical Nurses and cleaning, laundry, linen and foodservice workers. All of these workers play a role in our healthcare system to keep Albertans safe. And since then, we’ve seen quite a rise in anti-Kenney, anti-UCP protests and rallies, all inspired by what AUPE workers did in October.”
Wildcat strikes such as the one on October 26th have a long and storied history in Alberta. From the Social Credit era of the early 1970s to the Lougheed era and into the cut-and-slash Klein years of the 90s, and the arrogance of the Redford government wildcat actions have caught a number of Alberta governments by surprise. Most have humble beginnings.
We created an abundance of awareness that healthcare consists of more than just registered nurses and doctors, such as Licensed Practical Nurses and cleaning, laundry, linen and foodservice workers. All of these workers play a role in our healthcare system to keep Albertans safe. And since then, we’ve seen quite a rise in anti-Kenney, anti-UCP protests and rallies, all inspired by what AUPE workers did in October.
The famed Alberta laundry strike of 1995 was typical of these grassroots labour actions. After the Calgary Health Authority announced plans to privatize laundry services, an appalling measure Jason Kenney’s UCP parroted 25 years later, laundry workers at Calgary’s Rockyview Hospital battled back.
Instead of showing up to work the next day, all 60 of these workers called in sick. They risked fines, the decertification of their local and the loss of their jobs--not an easy decision for this group of mostly immigrant women. But within a week, workers walking wildcat picket lines numbered 2,500 in six hospitals and nine long term care facilities. Other healthcare workers implemented work-to-rule procedures while members of other unions joined the picket lines or refused to cross them. The fight was on!
And the 60 laundry worker and their thousands of supporters won that fight. Public support for this strike forced Premier Ralph Klein to back down. A delay of privatization for 18 months wasn’t a complete victory, but this wildcat strike put the brakes Klein’s slash-and-burn policies. This moment became an important triumph for workers in Alberta labour history.
“Strikes can be disruptive, but more times than not they lead to change, and government tends to resist change that benefits the workers,” notes Borodey.
But the existence of wildcat strikes in Alberta’s history doesn’t reflect more activist attitudes amongst provincial workers than those in other provinces. For decades, Alberta laws that violated the Canadian constitution and International human rights, prohibited the majority of public sector workers from legally striking. As the laundry workers’ story showed, workers still fought on the picket lines. Especially workers who were part of unions that worked hard to build militancy within their membership and provided the perspective, resources and support to their members to take action when they feel it’s necessary.
“The government in power in Alberta is never on the side of the workers, no matter which party is in power,” Borodey adds. “On one hand you can argue it’s in their best interest to ensure that the workers they employ are in fact happy with the rules. On the other, giving workers the ability to withdraw their labour legally could be seen by the government as being counter-productive as it gives workers the right to walk out should they choose to do so.”
But preventing their workers from striking is not something governments in Canada can legally do. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protected the right to strike, forcing the Government of Alberta to update its Public Sector Labour Relations Legislation. It was a victory for labour and workers across the province.
But a short lived one.
“We’ve had the right to strike legally for five years now, a short period of time,” says Borodey.
Borodey points to Essential Services Agreement (ESA) Legislation plus its plans allow scabs to cross legal picket lines. Though the NDP originally passed ESA Legislation, the UCP have made some amendments to make it potentially more restrictive.
“The UCP amendments make it difficult to reach a position to legally strike. We may never get that close,” she says. “And laws that allowed employers to hire scabs in case of a legal strike are shameful. That just undermines the workers and weakens the impact of the withdrawal of labour and a strike. If they are able to replace those individuals who are able to withdraw their labour, then no one can create any real disruption.”
History shows that only disruption, the removal of labour, can make that kind of change. And the AUPE is here, with its resources and support,when any of its members are ready to hit the lines and make that kind of stand.