UCP attack on doctors should set off alarm bells with Albertans, say AFL president

Gil McGowan, president of Alberta’s largest worker advocacy group, the Alberta Federation of Labour, released the following statement about the UCP’s attack on doctors:

The Kenney government’s decision to tear up a duly negotiated and legally-binding agreement with doctors should set off alarm bells with all Albertans. For a government that has spent the last month talking aggressively about the need to enforce the rule-of-law, the irony couldn’t be more obvious and troubling. Canadian law respects both contracts and the collective bargaining process. In this case, it’s clearly the Kenney government, not the doctors, who are the rule breakers.

This is a bully government that seems willing to follow the law only when it suits their purposes and their ideology. It also appears to be a government that sees the law as a tool it can wield to make others submit to their will. That’s not how democracies are supposed to work – and it’s a troubling indication that the Kenney government is following the path blazed by other proto-authoritarians who, over the past decade, have been eroding democratic norms and traditions in countries around the world, including places like India, Brazil, Hungary and the United States under Donald Trump’s Republican party.

Albertans should take notice of what’s going on here for at least four reasons. First, this kind of authoritarian “my-way-or-the-highway approach” is likely to have devastating consequences for our health care system. Doctors are a very mobile group of workers. There is a very real chance that many of them will simply leave the province, rather than submit to whims of Jason Kenney and his bully health minister. This will set off a crisis in our health care system.

Second, the hundreds of thousands of Albertans who work in other parts of our province’s public sector should brace themselves – because they’re next. If Jason Kenney is willing to take this kind of action with doctors – a respected, even venerated, group – imagine what he has in store for nurses, teachers, firefighters, municipal workers and other citizens working in Alberta’s public sector.

It’s clear the UCP is deliberately sabotaging negotiations with public sector workers – in the same way they deliberately sabotaged negotiations with doctors – in order to justify using draconian legislation to impose deep cuts to wages, benefits and working conditions. These cuts – imposed at a time when Alberta still has the strongest economy in the country and when wages in the private sector are increasing at least at the rate of inflation – will set off a confrontation on a scale that has not been seen before in our province.  The scale of disruption that Premier Kenney is courting, just so he can plow ahead with his ideological agenda of tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else, is truly mind-boggling.

Third, Albertans should be concerned because the UCP is clearly trying to undermine confidence in the public health care system. It’s the oldest trick in the right-wing playbook: break popular public institutions by under-funding and mismanaging them; then say privatization is the only way to fix things. Alberta should not allow themselves to be fooled.

Finally, all Albertans – including those who do not work in the public sector – should be very concerned because what we’re witnessing is not just an attack on doctors, nurses and teachers: it’s an attack on the bargaining power of all workers. The UCP is clearly trying to create a “take-it-or-leave-it” labour market, in which employers have all the power and employees have little or none. Unions may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the reality is that they are one of the only effective counterbalances to the power of corporations and the wealthy. If the UCP is successful in crushing unions and the collective bargaining process, it will set off a race-to-the-bottom as employers, emboldened by the actions of government, start putting the screws to their employees.

In the last provincial election, Albertans voted for the UCP’s promises of jobs and economic growth. But what they’re getting instead is attacks on vital public services, wage suppression and labour policies that will undermine Albertans’ standard of living. This wage suppression strategy will also contract consumer spending and weaken economic growth. To say that this is not what Albertans voted for would be an understatement. What happened yesterday with the doctors is a huge red flag. It’s time for Albertans to stand up and push back.

Gil McGowan

President, Alberta Federation of Labour

February 21, 2020