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Proudly Political

With a provincial election on the way, AUPE members are stepping up to protect each other.

Sep 21, 2018

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With a provincial election on the way, AUPE members are stepping up to protect each other.

By Alexander Delorme, Communications Staff

AUPE is proudly political.

We deliver public services for the public good. We are the backbone of the services Albertans rely on, like education, health, seniors care, social services, safety and security, and many more.

AUPE members have always known this. It is why we encourage each other to become involved in the organizations and decision making processes that affect our work, families, and communities. It is also why, every two years at Convention, members from across the province come together to elect our Executive Committee, into whose hands the membership trusts to oversee the direction of the union.

"We take this responsibility very seriously," said AUPE President Guy Smith. "The members elect us to do a job, and part of that job is preparing for the political realities we may face at any given time."

The Executive has taken strong steps to develop a strategy for the upcoming provincial election, which includes sharing information on where the major political leaders stand on the issues that matter to AUPE members.

"We are going to emphasize a number of things," said Smith. "For example, the NDP stopped the previous government's proposed cuts, but they are not budgeting to keep up with population growth and inflation. Additionally, they don't seem to have a concrete plan to fix our province's revenue problem."

Smith went on to say that, while the NDP is not perfect, it is difficult to know where to start when it comes to the United Conservative Party (UCP).

"Everything is problematic: they want to bring in American-style private health care, aggressively contract out social services, roll back human rights, and give Alison Redford's plan to gut retirement security another go," said Smith. "The UCP is not good for working Albertans."

Encouraging political know-how and involvement isn't something new for our union.

"Political and community activism have been an essential part of AUPE's history since 1919," said Smith. "When your livelihood depends on the decisions government makes, your strategies are going to have to get political."

In 1919, Alberta's public sector workers formed the Civil Service Association of Alberta (CSAA) in response to a Social Credit government that treated them as 'servants' and had allowed working conditions to deteriorate during World War One.

These public sector workers fought for dignity, equity and fairness in the workplace through a combination of civil disobedience, job action and activism. The members of CSAA understood that they had the political power to challenge their employer and improve their lives not just by casting a vote at the ballot box, but by creating change together as a union.

The CSAA became AUPE in 1976, a renaissance that ushered in an era of holding the provincial government to account and fighting for the rights of all working people. The 'apples and oranges' strike was the defining moment in this new period of political action.

"This strike took everyone by surprise," said Smith. "Everyone, that is, except AUPE members."

AUPE had been making preparations for some time. Massive information campaigns were orchestrated to ensure members knew exactly how the PC government was disrespecting them: they had banned strikes by provincial government employees, rigged the arbitration process against the union, and then went back on their promise to give public sector workers the same rights as other workers.

The members had had enough. They pledged to take serious action at AUPE's 1979 Convention, and strike seminars were held throughout Alberta.

Then, in 1980, the government released guidelines which severely limited the wage increases that could be bargained for in negotiations. When asked how the government could justify limiting wage increases for public employees despite the fact elected officials had awarded themselves a 47-per-cent wage increase, the finance minister replied that it was "comparing apples to oranges."

What followed was one of the most successful strikes in Alberta's history. Because they were prepared, informed, and organized, public sector workers strategically walked off the job and hit the employer where it hurt most. The courts began to issue injunctions during the second and third weeks of the strike, but the workers were prepared for this too and most refused to capitulate.

AUPE members won that strike, but the real test of AUPE's strength and solidarity had yet to come.

"AUPE is definitely political, but we aren't partisan or affiliated with any political party, one way or the other, and this is an intentional decision," said Smith. "But it's hard to disagree that the greatest threat to AUPE members and our province's public services was the Progressive Conservative party under Ralph Klein."

The Klein era was a crisis for AUPE members and the services Albertans rely on. Klein gutted the public service and contracted out what he could. Neglected funding left our schools and hospitals in a woeful state that persists to this day. Thousands of workers lost their jobs and public sector employees took a five-per-cent wage rollback. AUPE members never gave up, but the membership was eventually reduced from 50,000 to 34,000.

"Jason Kenney and the UCP are talking about going back to the days of Ralph Klein like it's a good thing," said Smith. "We flat-out reject that."

AUPE members have always known that, if you want to stand up for public services, you have to get political. The decisions Alberta's political leaders make affect not only AUPE members' livelihoods, but also the services we provide.

Less than 10 years ago AUPE led a successful campaign to save 246 beds at the Alberta Hospital Edmonton from impending closure. The union launched a petition and held rallies, and eventually the government backtracked on its decision. A few years later AUPE led another successful challenge to save Red Deer's Michener Centre from closure. More recently AUPE members stood up to the Redford government's plans to force a bad deal on government services workers and ban even the mention of strikes through bills 45 and 46. Members persevered and the government abandoned its ill-advised plans. Soon after that, AUPE members stood up to the government when it tried to gut public and private sector retirement pensions. In every case, AUPE members refused to back down and ultimately stood up for themselves and working Albertans. These successes were all a result of political action.

AUPE will continue to highlight what politicians and employers are doing and saying, and what that means for us. No matter the political future, AUPE will meet any challenge as we always have: with strength and solidarity.

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