Jason Kenney’s newly formed UCP government in Alberta is launching an all-out offensive against workers’ rights. Kenney’s first move is to dismantle the $15 minimum wage introduced under the NDP. This first assault is under the fitting name “Open for Business Act”—implemented on June 26—which aims to cut underage workers’ wages by $2 and allow for bosses to hire youth for under minimum wage.
Kenney claims that cutting the minimum wage for young workers will, on the one hand, help revive small businesses by reducing the cost of labour. On the other hand, Kenney says that these cuts will help reduce youth unemployment by making them cheaper to hire and giving the bosses an incentive to hire more students. But Kenney really couldn’t care less about youth unemployment. His primary aim is to help the Alberta bosses to claw back their lost profits.
The effects of the Open for Business Act won’t be limited to the youth, but are also an attempt to push down all wages by creating a disposable layer of young workers who can be used up and thrown away when they turn 18. In the coming period, we can expect to see a growing reliance on underage workers for cheap labour, and a simultaneous reduction of the unionized workforce. This is only the first move against the broader working class in Alberta.
While this clearly will lead to the impoverishment of a whole new generation in Alberta, Kenney doesn’t see it that way. His complete lack of sympathy for the more than 130,000 Albertans working minimum wage jobs was made clear at a recent conference: “This is still a very generous wage—$13 an hour is a lot more than $0…” In fact, $13 an hour is a poverty wage and the UCP is trying to justify it by pointing out that $13 is higher than nothing at all. If $13 an hour is indeed “generous”, perhaps Kenney would like to exchange his official salary of $127,296 plus $79,560 in allowances for the “generous wage” of $13 an hour?
As a representative of big business, Kenney sees austerity as the only viable solution to the crisis: cuts to social spending, wage reductions, labour redundancies, and higher taxes imposed on the workers. Essentially, the UCP wants to force the workers to pay for the crisis, while the bankers and oil barons—who created the crisis in the first place—can continue to make massive profits in the meantime.
While it appears as though Kenney has deep-rooted support in Alberta, polling at around 60 per cent, this support is only temporary. Many people who voted for the UCP in April were hoping to be shown a way out of the current crisis, but Kenney is showing that his ‘solution’ is to offload the cost of the crisis onto the backs of some of the most vulnerable in our society. These attacks on the working class will have the effect of massively reducing the support for the UCP, and leave Kenney as one of the most despised Alberta premiers of all time.
People in Alberta should look to Ontario to see what is to come. While Doug Ford hid his program during the election in order to win on the back of an anti-establishment mood in the province, his real program has become quite clear. There has been a general wave of austerity in Ontario with workers footing the bill. Ford has even implemented a similar “student wage” that brings down underage workers’ wages to $13.15 per hour from the “adult” minimum wage of $14 per hour. Ford’s popularity has dramatically plummeted, triggering mass movements against the PC government. This is the future that awaits Alberta. If the labour leaders in Ontario gave a firm lead to channel this discontent, Ford would be stopped in his tracks and his government would fall like a house of cards.
Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) President Gil McGowan has criticized the Open for Business Act and is quoted as saying that “Premier Kenney is creating an underclass of workers who could be hired for less and used as pawns to drive down wages for other workers…” Similarly, the AFL released a short analysis of the Open for Business Act and states: “Kenney is sending a message that workers in Alberta should expect and accept low wages, and that they should feel lucky just to have a job.” But Kenney is by no means finished and more attacks are on their way—that is why the labour movement cannot afford to wait to organize against the anti-worker UCP.
These strong statements from McGowan need to be followed up with action. We cannot sit idly by as Kenney drives down wages and attacks the most vulnerable in our society. We also shouldn’t think that Kenney is all-powerful or too popular to oppose. As more attacks are unveiled, the anger among the population will start to express itself and many people will be looking for a way to fight back. What is needed is for the Albertan labour leaders to mobilize the immense resources of the labour movement against Kenney with bold class struggle methods. Any attack needs to be met with mobilizations in the workplaces and in the streets. Trade unions need to defend young workers who are being attacked, as this is just the beginning of a general attack against the entire working class. Every anti-worker measure must be resisted with demonstrations, pickets and strike action in order to stop this government in its tracks.