Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has declared war on the working class with the implementation of Bill 9. This bill allows Kenney’s government to break contracts for public sector workers as well as defer bargaining with their unions. Unsurprisingly, this comes just days after the release of the MacKinnon report, a United Conservative Party (UCP) appointed commission which recommends huge cuts to social services, privatizations and back-to-work legislation against unions who go on strike. The cuts are coming and only the Albertan working class can stop them. The time to prepare the resistance is now.
Bill 9 was originally passed in June, but the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) challenged the legislation in court and was granted an injunction, suspending the bill. However, on Sept. 6, the courts reversed their decision and allowed the government’s appeal, putting Bill 9 back in effect. This shows us that the labour movement cannot solely rely on the courts to defeat this anti-democratic legislation.
The ‘independent’ commission
A lot has been made about former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister Janice MacKinnon’s participation on the panel. Kenney and the right wing all hold up her NDP credentials as if they made the panel an objective and nonpartisan group. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
When MacKinnon was finance minister of the NDP government of Saskatchewan in the early 1990s, her party betrayed the working class and poor farmers by offloading the cost of a financial crisis onto them. The 1993 budget presented by MacKinnon closed 52 hospitals, ended the children’s dental plan and universal prescription drug program, and slashed funding for schools, hospitals, and municipalities anywhere from five to 13 per cent. Since then MacKinnon has continued to move rightward toward the conservative camp. In 2013, she was commissioned by a right-wing think tank, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, to argue that Canada’s health-care system needed privatizations. Then in 2017 she argued that the Albertan government should legislate lower public sector wages.
Other notable so-called “independent experts” on the panel include Dave Mowat, the former CEO of ATB Financial, and Bev Dahlby, a conservative economist and advisor to the notorious right-wing Fraser Institute. Of all of the bosses and Tories included, it would be hard to find one to the left of Ralph Klein!
With these people in the driver’s seat, it was no surprise that this commission would come out with recommendations of austerity and privatization that gut our public services. In health care, the province’s biggest expenditure, Recommendation 1 suggests cutting Alberta’s per-capita spending to levels closer to British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, which on average spend $4,239 to Alberta’s $5,077. That is a reduction of 16.5 per cent! Recommendation 3 suggests contracting out some procedures to private facilities. Recommendation 4 suggests renegotiating “alternative payment plans” with doctors, and goes further to say that if an agreement cannot be reached, the government should consider “legislative options”. Of course, this is code for imposing contracts and taking away the right to strike.
The MacKinnon report takes no prisoners; not even children are spared. For grade schools, the report advises cutting government funding for administration and governance by eight per cent. For university and college, the recommendation is to take away government grants and charge more in tuition. This measure will only add to the enormous burden of student debt in Canada, which is now at $28 billion and growing. And if this wasn’t enough, the authors of the report also want to close down some post-secondary schools. This will likely force young people to give up on their desired career path or force them to travel longer distances and take on more debt.
Another recommendation of the report is to “establish a legislative mandate that sets salary levels for all public sector employees”. In place of collective bargaining, the panel would rather the government legislate cuts to wages and benefits across the board. What happens if the workers protest or strike? No matter. The panel has already thought of that. They say: ”In the event of a strike, the mandate would form the basis for back-to-work legislation.” Not only do they anticipate a labour dispute, they are already clear what the government should do: deny the workers their democratic rights.
Preparing the resistance
Once all of the flowery language is stripped away, the message becomes clear: This government will make cuts and crush all opposition. But the Kenney government is weaker than it seems. While many people voted for Kenney because they were looking for a way out of the crisis brought on by the fall in oil prices, they will soon learn that Kenney’s “solution” is nothing but lavishing gifts on his corporate friends while workers suffer. Since taking power Kenney has cut corporate taxes by a third, from 12 per cent to eight per cent. In the first year alone the province will lose $348 million in revenue, which will ultimately have to be made up by cuts to social programs. Under these conditions, Kenney’s support can quite quickly melt away, especially if there is a strong organized opposition from the labour movement.
The overturn of the injunction against Bill 9 shows that we cannot rely on the courts to protect us. It is true that Bill 9 is in violation with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically freedom of association. The Supreme Court of Canada itself declared this in an identical case, Ontario v. Fraser. But to look to the courts for help in the struggle against cuts will only dissipate the momentum and leverage of the union membership into a long drawn-out process that does nothing but enrich a small group of lawyers.
Class struggle is the only line of defense remaining for the working class, and we cannot be confined to legal channels and parliamentary maneuvers. If the Kenny government takes Janice MacKinnon’s advice to “use legislation to set wage levels in the public sector,” the public sector must respond appropriately: a united strike of public employees against the cuts. Should the government attempt to break the strike with anti-democratic legislation, the unions should spread the movement to the entire working class, union and non-union alike, in a massive strike movement against the cuts and in defense of the right to strike.
We cannot wait until the next election to get rid of the Kenney government. Alberta Teachers’ Association President Jason Schilling has said, regarding any effort by the government to legislate wages or impose back-to-work legislation, “We’ll fight it at every legal means that we have and we’ll win.” But what happens when the government legislates away our rights? The courts have failed and this government cannot be defeated in the Alberta legislature. We must mobilize a mass strike movement to stop Kenney and his corporate friends in their tracks and bring this government down. The time to build the resistance is now!