2003 April Speech Alberta CUPE Convention

Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, April 2003

As trade unionists we are currently living through a period that can best be described as schizophrenic.

It's a time of big challenges - some of the most serious we've ever faced. But, on the other hand, I believe it's also a time of new hope and new opportunities.

This afternoon, I'd like to start with the positives & and so I'll make a positive statement.

I'm convinced that we're starting to see the first tell-tale signs that the long winter of knee-jerk, business-first politics that has dominated our country since the days of Brian Mulroney may finally be coming to an end.

This may seem like a surprising claim to make - especially here in Alberta. And especially considering all the talk we've been hearing lately from our provincial government about taking away the right to strike from health care workers, imposing agreements and fining unions millions of dollars.

There is no doubt that, in the halls of power, things are as bad as they've ever been - maybe worse.

But on the ground - in communities, in homes, in coffee shops - attitudes are changing.

After Enron and Worldcom and all the other corporate scandals that have come to light over the past year, people are no longer so willing to put blind faith in the business community

Ordinary Canadians are also becoming more and more skeptical of the corporate agenda that our governments have been pursuing for the past fifteen years.

Yes, our leaders are still talking about budget cuts, privatization, wage roll-backs, down-sizing, trade deals and tax cuts for the well-off. And, yes, here in Alberta, the government seems to be rev-ing up for a war on unions.

But poll after poll tells us that ordinary Canadians are on a different page.

Joe and Jane Canadian no longer agree with the National Post and the Fraser Institute that cutting the debt and cutting taxes are the big issues. And they don't agree with the Ralph Klein's of the world who argue that unions are the root of all evil.

What people are really concerned about are things that affect their pocketbook; things that affect their communities; and things that affect their families.

In fact, Canadians are now starting to focus on many of the things that we in the labour movement have been talking about for years: things like health care; education; jobs; and the environment.

Recent polls have also shown some interesting shifts in the political landscape.

A few years ago the Reform party and then the Canadian Alliance were driving the agenda in this country. They weren't in government, but for most of the 90s they succeeded in moving the political centre of gravity in this country far to the right.

But today, according to the latest EKOS poll, the Alliance has slipped to 10 percent of popular support - down from more than 25 percent less than a year ago.

At the same time, the NDP has jumped to nearly 18 percent - from just nine percent during the last election.

Even here in Alberta - where we've basically had one-party rule for more than six decades - support for the Conservative party has notched down slightly for the first time in years.

By themselves, none of these signs can be described as revolutionary. But taken together, the signs suggest that something is going on - something is changing under the surface.

It's like the first warm day after a long winter. The snow still covers everything - but there is a steady "drip, drip, drip" that tells us that things are going to change - that the snow will be gone soon - and that the cold will soon be replaced by something more hospitable.

For those of us in the labour movement who have endured nearly twenty years of anti-union, neo-conservative winter - a spring thaw would certainly be welcome.

And that's exactly what seems to be happening. The pendulum is swinging. And this time it looks like it's swinging with us - not into us.

That's the good news. But as I said off the top, the world we in live today is not all roses.

On the negative side of the ledger, we face a number of serious challenges - some more frightening and more dangerous for our members than anything we've ever faced before.

How bad is it? To be honest, there's a whole shopping list of concerns.

Here in Alberta, the latest attack on workers and workers rights comes in the form of Bill 27 - a bill to amend the Alberta Labour Code.

We've all been talking about this Bill - but it's important to be clear about what is being proposed:

Bill 27 strips the right to strike from thousands of people working in community health care. It attacks the right of ALL health care workers to choose their own union. It denies workers access to severance pay-outs if their jobs are contracted out. It removes decision-making power from impartial tribunals like the Labour Relations Board and hand it over to the provincial cabinet And it sets up a process that will almost certainly give regional health authorities the power to impose inferior agreements on health care workers. From our perspective at the AFL, Bill 27 is just the first shot in what may turn into a war on workers waged by the Alberta government against unions in this province.

Within the next few months, we expect that teachers will also be targeted.

In an effort to weaken the ATA, this government will introduce a new law splitting ATA's union and professional functions.

And then there will be a law taking away their right to strike.

The government will use the same excuses they're using now with health care workers. They'll say that it's about protecting the public. They'll say it's about maintaining essential services.

But we all know what this is really all about. It's about power. It's about control. And it's about slapping down and punishing groups who dare to stand up for themselves.

The truth is that, in many ways, unions are the real opposition in this province.

The nurses stood up and won 22 percent for their members. The teachers stood up and won 14 percent. And it was CUPE and the hospital workers in Calgary who stood up seven years ago and stopped the Klein government from implementing the last of its planned cuts in health care.

Aside from labour, no other group in this province has dared to defy the Tories. No other group has gone toe-to-toe with them. And no other group has made them blink.

That's why unions are being targeted in Bill 27. And it's why we're all in for a fight over the next year.

We at the AFL will be working with affiliates and labour councils to help coordinate the fightback. In fact, the AFL and seven unions representing health care workers have already launched an international challenge of Bill 27 under NAFTA.

We're also considering legal action in the courts here in Alberta. And we're working on a protocol that will see all of our union work together in fighting this backward piece of legislation.

The government may think they can ram this law through under the cover of the war in Iraq. They may think they can ram it through without public scrutiny and without public protest.

But today I have a message for them. We will not go quietly. We will not roll over. And will not stand idly by while the rights of our members are trampled!

I wish I could say that the bad news for workers in this province stops with Bill 27. But it doesn't.

Here in Alberta, we have a government that is literally floating on money - but they still won't spend it on our schools or on other services that really matter to people.

Instead, they want to hand our tax dollars over to investors in the private-sector by increasing the number of so-called public-private-partnerships. The record on P3s is clear - wherever they've been tried, they've failed. But this government is ignoring the evidence and they're pushing forward - even though they know P3s will cost more, delivery less and put good jobs at risk.

P3s and Bill 27 are just two items on the list of challenges we're facing.

I could add more: like a war in the Middle East that almost nobody in this world wants; like a federal government that likes to portray itself as progressive, but which has cut services to a level we haven't seen since the '50s; or like the threat posed to working people by ill-conceived international trade agreements.

The list goes on - but the point is: we have our work cut out for us.

The irony in all this is that - just as the public seems to be getting tired of the right-wing crowd - conservative governments here Alberta and across the country seem to be getting bolder. And they're getting meaner.

The big question now is how do we respond to the challenges I've just talked about - and how do we capitalize on the opportunities that come with a more progressive shift in public opinion?

One option would be to do nothing - or to do the same things we've always done.

Maybe if we simply sit tight and wait, the pendulum will swing back our way.

But then again - if all we do is wait, the pendulum may not swing at all; or it might not swing as far as we'd like it to; or might swing right past us.

As you might have guessed, we at the AFL have come to the conclusion that the labour movement has to take a more active approach.

That's one of the reasons I'm so pleased to speak at gatherings like this one. We want to spread the gospel of activism - and we want to share our ideas and experiences about what we think will work to make the labour movement stronger.

For us, it all starts with a clear vision of the role of unions.

We firmly believe that the labour movement is one of the few institutions in society that is big enough and strong enough to stand up to the corporate and political powers-that-be.

We also believe that the labour movement has an obligation to use its size, its power and its resources to not only help our own members - but also to go to bat for families, for the unorganized and for the broader communities in which we all live.

When it comes specific solutions and strategies, we don't pretend to have all the answers. But over the past seven or eight years, all of us in the Alberta labour movement have been kicked around a lot.

In the process, we've suffered a few defeats; we've enjoyed a few victories - and we've learned quite a few lessons.

Before I wrap up this afternoon, I just want to touch on the three of the most important lessons I think we've learned - lessons that we can all learn from.

First - we've learned that we can't do it alone.

Whether we're talking about an individual strike or a province-wide campaign against cutbacks, we've learned that we get better results when we have allies - especially allies from outside the labour movement.

About a year ago, Ipso-Reid released a poll that helped illustrate why building coalitions is so important.

Basically, the survey asked Canadians to rate different groups in terms of trust. Not surprisingly, politicians were at the bottom of the barrel. But union spokespeople and union leaders weren't far behind.

We may not like to admit it - but unions have a serious image problem - and a serious credibility problem. Too often we're dismissed as self-interested and out to feather our own nests.

That's why we at the AFL have made a point of building coalitions with organizations outside the labour movement - organizations that share our concerns and our priorities.

Community groups, seniors groups, student groups, religious groups, women's groups, environmental groups, health care advocacy groups, immigrant groups, anti-poverty advocates, progressive academics.

You name it - we need to forge ties and build bridges with all these groups.

And it's not just a crass attempt to steal their credibility. It's about sharing resources, sharing people power, sharing networks, sharing ideas - and working together for change.

The second lesson we've learned is that we have to do a better job of cooperating within the labour movement itself. Too often, we get trapped in silos. We keep our heads down and do our work with our own members. But the result is that we end up not seeing the forest for the trees. We also often end up recreating the wheel.

Our experience fighting Bill 11 three years ago proved this point.

The Fed could have gone off and organized its own campaign. The nurses' and CUPE and the health sciences association could each have gone off in their own directions.

But instead, we worked together as part of a broader coalition - the Friends of Medicare coalition.

The result was that, by pooling our money and our people, we were able to run a bigger, smarter and more effective campaign than we ever would have been able to pull off individually.

Over the past year, we've started to apply this logic to organizing the unorganized. In partnership with the two other prairie provinces, we're talking about establishing a central organizing school. We're even talking about joint organizing drives. So instead of competing with each other, instead of working against each other - we're working together.

That's what we mean when we talk about cooperation between unions. We think solidarity should be more than a word we sing in a song every few years at conventions.

The third and final lesson that I'd like to highlight today is that we need to get over the fear of trying new things.

When the Alberta government first started slashing in 1993, we did all the usual things. We wrote leaflets that almost no one read. We organized a few rallies that only a few hundred people attended. We sent out a few harshly worded press releases. We even circulated a petition and started a postcard campaign.

The problem was that we did exactly what Ralph Klein expected us to do - and he didn't give a crap. As long it was just the usual suspects on the Legislature steps he knew he could get away with ignoring us.

The good news is that we've finally snapped out of it. We're starting to do things more creatively and more professionally.

We've borrowed from the corporate world by using TV ads, polling and direct mail campaigns.

We've borrowed from Hollywood by rounding up real life stories of people to tell their stories to the media.

And just last month, we went back to old-style person-to-person organizing.

Through the Friends of Medicare coalition, we canvassed more than 20,000 people in Federal Health Minister Anne McLellan's Edmonton riding - and we got more than five thousand of them to sign a card saying they might not vote for her in the next election if she doesn't do something to stop for-profit delivery of health services.

The point of all this is not to illustrate how brilliant we are at the AFL. If we were really that brilliant, we wouldn't still be dealing with Ralph as Premier three elections later.

What I am trying to say is that unions can make change - even in the most inhospitable climates. We can make gains for our members and we can defend and even advance our broader social agenda.

We can do all these things by building bridges to other groups. We can do it by working together within the labour movement. And we can do it by trying new things, by working better and working smarter.

In the end, I'm convinced that we can benefit from the spring thaw that is driving Canadians away from the business-first crowd. And I'm convinced that we can beat back the attacks that are threatening our unions and our members.

The pendulum is swinging our way. If we're prepared, if we're smart, if we're creative I know we can grab on make some real headway on the issue that matter most to all of us.

As usual, CUPE will be at the forefront of all our efforts. I look forward to working with you and standing together with you in our fight to build a better Alberta.

Good luck in your deliberations. Solidarity!

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