New century brings little comfort to working people, says AFL

Edmonton - The year 2000 won't be fondly remembered by the working people of Alberta says Audrey Cormack, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour. Although unemployment was down, there were no other positive indicators for workers in an economy that showed strong growth.

"With the provincial unemployment rate at just 4.8 per cent," said Cormack, "and with exports and the energy, manufacturing and retail sales sectors all showing strong growth, you would expect there to be a real improvement in wages."

Average weekly earnings actually did rise by 3.9 per cent between September 1999 and September 2000, but Cormack doesn't place much credence in the statistic. "Once you realize that average hourly wages basically remained flat throughout 2000, it is obvious that the increase in average weekly wages is attributable to increased overtime work and not to actual wage increases at all," she observed. [Average hourly wages actually declined slightly from $15.66 in January 2000 to $15.63 in August, 2000]

"And," she added, "with the year to year inflation rate at 4.4 per cent in November, it is painfully clear that most Alberta workers are actually making less real income this year than last year."

The continued depression of wage levels is going to create real hardships for working families in the New Year, according to Cormack. "Albertans are just beginning to face the consequences of the Klein government's power deregulation policies," she said. "Let's face it, Alberta is a cold country - and electrical power and gas heating are not simply commodities to Albertans, they are necessities."

Cormack sees no immediate end to the spiraling costs of electricity and heating for Alberta households. "No quick-fix cheques from the government will ever address the intolerable increase in family energy costs," she said. "With wages stagnant, workers are going to be in trouble."

Cormack blames the continued attack on workers rights to organize and bargain collectively for the continued lack of wage gain in the province.

"The year 2000 was marred by several key labour disputes that clearly posed the government on the side of anti-union employers," says Cormack. "The refusal of the government to intervene in the Calgary Herald strike - despite the fact that then-owner Conrad Black publicly announced that he was going to bust the union - sent a clear message to all employers and workers that the provincial government wasn't interested in protecting the rights of Albertans to belong to unions.

Cormack also points to the strike/lock-out at Brewers Distributing Limited where the government refused to check the employers decision to simply contract out long-time unionized workers' jobs to a cheaper non-union company. "In the BDL dispute, the government basically gave employers the green light to contract-out entire operations to evade the democratic rights of unionized workers," says Cormack.

Cormack sees little difference in government activity in the public sector. "Although hospital workers got modest wage increases," she notes, "it was only after an 'illegal' strike - and the government is still seeking punitive damages against the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees for having the audacity to actually stand up for their members."

Things were even worse for non-unionized workers according to Cormack. "The lack of policing and enforcement of the most basic workers' rights contained in the Employment Standards Code is a disgrace," says Cormack. "And, even when offenders are caught and found guilty of violating workers' rights - as in the recent Buffet World case - the courts refuse to take effective action."

"The year 2000 was not a good one for working people," summarizes Cormack, "and things don't look any better for 2001. Costs are rising, wages are depressed, and we are dealing with a chronic shortfall in public services and programs like health care and education which is costing us and our families in many ways."

Nonetheless, Cormack remains hopeful. "I believe that the working men and women of Alberta will not accept the dismal future the Klein government seems to have mapped out for them," she concludes. "We will mobilize and organize to force some real, positive changes in our social and economic circumstances."

For more information please call:

Audrey Cormack, President, AFL     @     780-499-6530 (cell) / 780-428-9367 (hm)

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