By Terry Inigo-Jones,
You’d think Alberta had enough problems with a deadly pandemic and the economic collapse caused by a global slump in oil prices, but the provincial government is courting more disaster.
Driven by its irrational hatred of Albertans who work in the public sector, the UCP government is embarking on a radical austerity program of job and budget cuts that increases the risks of a worsening mountain pine beetle crisis that threatens to devastate our forests and unleash more and bigger forest fires.
But wait, there’s more!
Jason Kenney’s government is also targeting the jobs of those who care for Alberta’s most vulnerable citizens and destroying agricultural programs that have been a huge help to farmers and rural communities.
“It makes no sense,” says AUPE vice-president Mike Dempsey.
In October, the Government of Alberta (GOA) revealed it planned to cut up to 930 government service jobs. This reduction is separate from the previously announced plan to cut 11,000 health-care jobs in the middle of a surging pandemic.
Dempsey says some of those GOA jobs have already gone and more will be cut after Christmas, possibly including jobs at Environment and Parks. But that won’t be the end of the bad news, he says: “On top of that, the government did their budgeting a year ago. They said they were looking forward to cutting a total of 2,500 jobs from the Government of Alberta.” Dempsey explains that the government set that figure before the COVID-19 pandemic, adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they want to cut even more, which is insane.”
Vital agricultural research ‘destroyed’
Retired Alberta agriculture research scientist Ross McKenzie doesn’t mince words when describing the effect of the job cuts by Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen.
“It is very discouraging because the minister is extremely short-sighted,” says McKenzie. “I started working for Alberta Agriculture in 1975 and so I have seen a lot of ministers, some extraordinary—some good, some not so good—but this present minister, Devin Dreeshen, he is without question the most useless and the most negative I have ever seen in my whole career.
“He is awful. He is literally destroying Alberta Agriculture. He has taken what once was a big department and destroyed it. They might as well turn out the lights and lock the doors.”
Not only has the minister unfairly “bad-mouthed” the hard-working staff in the agriculture department, his job cuts will hurt farmers who have relied on their independent, accessible information on matters including irrigation, keeping soil healthy and finding new markets for their goods.
“The minister makes the case he is saving money, but by laying off all these Alberta Agriculture staff, according to their budget that came out in February, they would save about $22 million, but he has turned around and given $37 million to this new organization that he has created called RDAR (Results Driven Agriculture Research).”
He (Agriculture Minister David Dreeshen) is awful. He is literally destroying Alberta Agriculture. He has taken what once was a big department and destroyed it. They might as well turn out the lights and lock the doors.
Government targets Albertans with disabilities
One of the primary targets for cuts to government jobs is Community and Social Services. The government has told up to 536 workers that their positions are on the block, including those who care for Albertans with severe disabilities in group homes in Calgary and Edmonton.
Furthermore, the government is considering privatizing care, which could mean it will force the residents to move against the will of family members and guardians.
This dangerous scheme is aimed at the most vulnerable people in the province, says Dempsey, and could mean up to 200 Albertans adults and children could be made to leave homes they love and where they feel safe, in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Hundreds of workers could lose their jobs.
Forests in danger
This province is famous for its forests, and they are a valuable resource, but the government’s cuts to forest firefighting operations has put them – and Albertans – in danger.
Dempsey says: “I knew cuts were coming, but I was quite shocked to see they went after fire.”
Last year, the UCP government killed 50 jobs by cutting the rappel program, which sent firefighters to tackle blazes that were inaccessible by road.
Flown in by helicopter, they rappelled down to fight the flames and create a helicopter-landing area so more firefighters could join them. This first-response capability is vital to stop small fires from becoming big fires that threaten lives and homes.
There will still be inaccessible fires, says Dempsey. The difference, now, is that they will be allowed to grow bigger, destroy more forest land and put more communities in harm’s way.
Brace for a beetle invasion
Literally adding fuel to the fires will be the damage caused by the advance of mountain pine beetles into Alberta’s forests.
Among the 57 jobs cut in the forestry department are seven forest health technicians. One of their duties was to beat back the mountain pine beetle. That important work will now fall on already overworked forest health officers who do not have capacity to do the work.
As the climate warms, the beetles advance and destroy more trees, says Dempsey. Climate change also means Alberta is likely to experience more fires and bigger ones.
What’s worse is that the trees killed by the pine beetles add fuel to forest fires. “It’s a recipe for a real disaster,” says Dempsey.
Then there’s wage cuts
Early in November, the GOA told AUPE’s Government Services Bargaining Committee that it was revising its initial wage offer in negotiations for a new collective agreement.
Instead of a cut of one per cent, followed by three years of zeroes, it was now seeking a four-per-cent cut followed by three zeroes.
Members are mad, says Dempsey.
“What I’m hearing is that nobody can afford a four-per-cent cut and then three zeroes because with inflation, it probably works out to about 10-12 per cent less in your pocket at the end of those four years than you are making right now. I don’t know too many people saving or putting away 10 per cent of their paycheque right now.”
The situation is even worse for fish and wildlife officers. The UCP government has drawn more than 100 of them into its Rural Alberta Provincial Integrated Defence (RAPID) Force, and expects them to answer emergency calls normally handled by the RCMP.
In November 2019, the employer led members to believe they’d get additional compensation for taking on the new and dangerous duties. How dangerous? Well, they were issued with rifles and body armour because responding to police emergencies can be a matter of life and death. That dangerous!
However, after a classification review, the employer ruled they wouldn’t get a raise.
The employer has also proposed a reduction on top of the four-per-cent general wage cut for Program Service (PS) employees in class levels 3 and 4. For PS3, this is an additional -2.17 per cent and for PS4 a -4.78 per cent. These proposed reductions would affect close to 4,000 AUPE members.
Bargaining continues with the GOA for a new collective agreement.
There are also negotiations with the employer to create an Essential Services Agreement (ESA), which the employer and union negotiate to decide which services are considered vital to keep the public safe in the event of a strike or lockout.
The mood among the 22,000 members directly employed by the government is not good, says Dempsey.
Tensions are running high.
It’s tough enough working on the front lines during a pandemic, providing vital services that Albertans need more than ever. When you add the constant grinding criticism and repeated attacks by UCP leaders, things get even worse.
Meanwhile, talks at the bargaining table are not going well. There is a wide gap between what the union negotiating team and the employer are proposing. You can see the opening proposals for both sides here.
We have to be prepared to strike, or even to be locked out by the employer. Either way, it is clear that this round of negotiations with the GOA is very likely to come to a confrontation like we have never seen before. And we will be ready.
Since then, the employer has changed its demands and is seeking a four-per-cent across-the-board wage cut in year one instead of one per cent. There are also moves to re-evaluate and cut pay even further for some classifications. You can read the details here.
“There is a lot of despondency,” says Dempsey. “There is a lot of anger. So, we’ll see what happens in negotiations. But, more importantly, we will see what happens in the workplaces, whether our members are on their worksite or working remotely due to the pandemic. Because that is where the organizing and preparing our members for strike action is taking place.
“Teams of activists and leaders will be working together to build the awareness, confidence and capacity amongst the membership to oppose government cuts to jobs and services. We have to be prepared to strike, or even to be locked out by the employer. Either way, it is clear that this round of negotiations with the GOA is very likely to come to a confrontation like we have never seen before. And we will be ready.”