Gil McGowan speech at UNA AGM .jpg

Workers have power – now is the time to use it

This is an excerpt from the speech delivered on Wednesday, October 20, 2021 by Alberta Federation of Labour President, Gil McGowan, to hundreds of Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses attending the Annual General Meeting of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA).

This morning, I want to talk to you briefly about crisis and opportunity; and about power and responsibility.

It has often been said that the flip-side of crisis is opportunity. And here in Alberta over the past few years, we’ve had no shortage of crises.

First, we’ve had the crisis in our economy brought on by the unfolding global move away from fossil fuels – and our government’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge that fact or prepare for it.

Second, we have a crisis in our public services, brought on by years of underfunding and understaffing.

Third, and perhaps most pressingly, we have a crisis in public health and in our hospitals.

As a result of the UCP’s reckless and irresponsible so-called “open for summer” plan, that prematurely removed almost all COVID precautions and protections, the fourth wave of the pandemic in Alberta has become the worst wave.

We have only 12 per cent of Canada’s population, but for weeks we had more than 50 per cent of Canada's COVID cases – and we had a COVID fatality rate that was four times the Canadian average.

As nurses on the front line, you know what all this has meant: overwhelmed wards and ICUs; thousands and thousands of delayed procedures; exhausted and traumatized staff; thousands of Albertans sickened; hundreds of Albertans dead; and a health care system that’s constantly on the brink of collapse.

The most galling part of the situation is that it didn’t have to be this way. The calamity that you are dealing with daily in your workplaces is the result of political choices. The choice to prioritize pancake fundraisers at the Stampede over public health. The choice to ignore the pleas and advice of health care workers and public health experts. And the choice to pander to vocal anti-vaxxers while ignoring the voices of the vast majority of responsible Albertans.

When hundreds of people die who didn’t need to die, there is no silver lining in the situation. But there is a grim opportunity.

Because of their callousness disregard for the lives and the health of the citizens they were supposed to protect, the government that brought us the fourth wave calamity is now on the ropes. The polls show there is real opportunity to end the UCP’s deadly reign of error. Monday’s municipal elections only emphasized this point.

It’s important for us the remember that in addition to making the fourth wave much worse than it had to be, this is also the government that is attempting to seize control of your pensions. It’s the government that wants to impose lay-offs and wage rollbacks on health care workers during a pandemic. It’s the government that has gutted labour legislation and workplace health and safety legislation in order to tip the playing field against working people. And it’s the government that that has given billions to profitable corporations but says we need to cut and privatize our public services.

Defeating this government won’t bring back the dead. It won’t magically restore prosperity in the face of an unprecedented global energy transition. It won’t even help us deal with the current crisis in our hospitals. But it will stop them from inflicting more damage on our province. And it will stop them from undermining the things we value and hurting the people we care about.

That leads me to the questions of power and responsibility.

The reality is that most working people don’t think much about power. Instead, we think about our jobs and our families. We think about getting through the day. About paying the mortgage and the bills. About our parents’ health. About our kids’ futures.

The result is that we often leave power to those who already have most of it: people like CEOs, the wealthy, and the politicians that serve them.

That might be okay when things are going well for working people – but it’s a real problem in times when things are not going well for us. And things are not going well for us now.

So, how do we get power and use it?

The reality is that, individually, working people don’t have much power. We don’t have fortunes. We don’t have connections. And we usually don’t have time to spend on things outside of work and family.

But the power deficit suffered by working people changes when we do what you’re doing today – when come together in common purpose.

Individually, we’re weak. Together, we’re strong. And organized for a collective purpose, we’re unstoppable.

This is the real purpose and the real strength of unions, like UNA and all the other unions affiliated with the AFL.

We provide the mechanism for bringing working people together so we can understand, realize and magnify our strength.

In the process of doing these things, we gain power – power that can and should be used to counterbalance the power of corporations and the wealthy – whose interests and priorities are often different (sometimes diametrically opposed) to the interests of ordinary citizens.

That brings me to my final point: with power comes responsibility.

As I’ve said, working people in Alberta are hurting now. But most of them don’t have the power to do much about it. But, as I’ve also said, because of our unions and the strength that they give us, we in the labour movement do have power.

In these difficult times, we have a responsibility to use that power wisely and without shame, fear or hesitation.

How do we do that?

First, we need to use our power to deal with the crisis of the moment.

That’s why we at the AFL will soon be launching campaigns to demand paid sick leave for all; to demand presumptive WCB coverage for all workers suffering psychological injuries as a result of work, especially health care workers who have been traumatized on the frontlines of the pandemic; and a campaign to demand action on the crisis of understaffing that keeps our health care system on the brink in normal times, let alone during crisis times like we’re currently living through.

Second, we need to use our power unapologetically to help defeat the government that has done so much damage to our province.

This isn’t about partisan politics. This is about defending the interests of working people. As long as the UCP remains in power our jobs, the services we provide, and many of the things we care about will be in jeopardy.

So, we need to organize ourselves, and mobilize ourselves, to have influence on the political stage in the same way we organize and mobilize ourselves to have influence at the bargaining table and in the workplace.

Corporations and the wealthy never make any apologies for using their power – neither should we.

Third and finally, we need to use our power to pressure the next government to be a truly worker-friendly government – to take action on our priorities and concerns, not just pay lip service.

That means that we will use our power to push for things like I just mentioned: paid sick leave, mental health supports for traumatized workers, proper staffing in health care and education. But it also means that we’ll use our power to push for things like laws that make it easier for people to join unions and bargain collectively; for policies that extend workplace pensions to those that don’t have them; for universal child care and pharmacare; for public long-term care and public dental care; and for an economic plan that diversifies our economy as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

The bottom line is that the working people of this province need us more than they have ever needed us before.

There are multiple crises gripping our province, but also multiple opportunities.

We need to seize those opportunities. And, we’ll do that by recognizing that we have power – and understanding that we have a responsibility to use that power in defense of the working people of this province.
Make no mistake – over the next few weeks and months, the UCP will vilify us and attack us. They will talk about "Big Labour" and "Union Bosses". They will attempt to shut us up and shut us down. But that’s only because they realize we have a lot of potential power – and they want to stop us from using it. We can’t let that happen.

Now is not the time to be taken in by the self-serving spin from the UCP that unions should not be active on the political stage. Now is not the time to be faint of heart.

Instead, now is the time to understand our power – and understand that we don’t just have an opportunity to use it for the benefit of our province, we have a responsibility to do so.

Based on UNA’s track record, I know you won’t shrink from these challenges. I look forward to working with you in the coming months, as we always have – shoulder-to-shoulder and in solidarity.

Best wishes on a successful AGM!