Tuesday, April 3, 2018

AUPE Labour School and Movie Monsters

Last week, I spent a day in Banff at the AUPE labour school. Chatting with union members, activists, and staff, several commented on the Alberta’s 2018 Speech from the Throne. This passage caught everyone’s attention:
The people who work across our public sector are integral to the services Albertans rely on. We have already reached practical agreements with no raises and better job stability with many labour partners, including teachers and nurses, and a tentative agreement has been reached with our allied health professionals, such as paramedics, lab technologists and X-ray technologists.
The government has sought (and achieved) wage freezes as a way of reducing the cost of government. As a result, most public-sector workers’ wages will decline by the value of inflation for the next two years. For some workers (such as teachers), this will mean they have taken wage freezes in five of the six most recent years.

Wage freezes are often unpopular because they can have big implications for workers. Continuing with the teacher example, for example, these workers saw the real-dollar value of their salaries decline by more than 7% over the past six years due to un-addressed inflation. These losses affect their wages forever (due to lost compounding) and there is also a knock-on hit to their pensions.

Unions undoubtedly make gains when taking zeros (e.g., workload limits, better contract language) but forgone wages represent a significant transfer of money from workers to the government. Essentially, workers are subsidizing the operation of public services.

Several workers in Banff went further, noting that what the New Democrats (like the Tories before them) were doing was taking money from workers and using it to subsidize rich people and corporations (through income and corporate tax rates that are inadequate to pay for public services).

This was a pretty astute observation (many of my PhD-holding co-workers struggle to grasp this dynamic). And it raises interesting political questions. For example, what is the ND’s electoral thinking behind telling your supporters that “you gotta take a freeze so I can get re-elected”?

Probably it goes something like “you can be mad, but Jason Kenney will be worse so who you gonna vote for in 2019”? Now certainly Jason Kenney would be far worse for public servants. Personally, I loathe him.

I also loathe Dracula. But I don’t think it follows that, just because I hate vampires, I’m necessarily going to be a fan of Frankenstein’s monster. ("Better dead than undead!") And I’m certainly not going to cheer as it throws the public service into the lake to drown.

The anger about what amount to a betrayal of public-sector workers was palpable. I wonder how it will affect the ND’s electoral support come election time. Will public-sector workers fall in line? Or, will they be pissed enough to get out their torches and pitchforks?

-- Bob Barnetson

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