Terry Price, President of Public Interest Alberta
Just a few weeks ago, Jason Kenney used the analogy of the iconic bison to rally Albertans to pull together as a strong unit to fight COVID-19. There was praise lavished upon the front-line workers that were risking their own health and putting aside time with their own families to protect the health and well-being of their fellow Albertans.
And we have pulled together very effectively.
For that success, we owe our thanks to the many workers who went to work day in and day out, often in hazardous conditions while we did our part by sheltering in place. It has been these workers who have ensured that food and household supplies were delivered to stores, that allowed us to shop in safe and sanitary conditions or have these products delivered to our homes, that provided emergency services for protection of our homes and personal safety, and provided health care for loved ones impacted by the novel coronavirus or other medical problems. It has been our universal access to quality public health care and the support of various federal government financial support that have allowed us to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table – those of us who have a place to live and a table at which to eat.
The frenzied peak of the first wave may have passed and, although we must continue to be vigilant, cautious, and considerate, a lingering sense of normalcy is creeping into our lives. The appreciation that we have felt and overtly expressed for all of the workers that have seen us through this surreal experience cannot become a thing of the past.
For Jason Kenney and the UCP government, any expression of respect and appreciation for these front-line workers was clearly a convenient façade!
With the provincial legislature back in session to deal with business other than ‘emergency orders,’ it is imminently obvious that there has been no shift, not even a minimal shift, in the intentions of this government. Various pieces of legislation are being rammed through without any serious debate. Concerns raised by opposition MLAs, members of the public, or advocates for vulnerable members of our communities are brushed aside as if they were just an annoying piece of dust. Rallies of concerned citizens are so threatening to the government’s agenda that they are being outlawed!
Just when you thought that you had seen the worst of the UCP’s current misguided policies and legislation, Kenney’s appalling Bill 32 was revealed – and it is an astonishingly malignant piece of work, even by UCP standards. It disingenuously promises to “restore balance” to the workplace by giving employers more power and taking it away from the unions representing the workers. Any student of labour history can tell you this is a purely ideologically-driven ploy. One function of the labour movement is to counteract the excessive power that employers and corporations exercise over workers.
It is clearly an unmitigated attack on democratic rights, working people, unions, civil society organizations, and opposition to or criticism of the UCP’s regressive and reactionary policies.
The UCP had already made it abundantly clear in recent weeks (if more clarity was necessary) that they are absolutely committed to an extreme right-wing and ideological approach to Alberta’s economic problems, one totally centred on further supporting wealthy and corporate interests, while ignoring or abandoning the needs of ordinary working individuals and families and rejecting the need to deal with climate issues and diversifying the economy.
But the release of Bill 32 went much further, with an unprecedented and broadly-based attack on the Charter rights of Albertans, especially those who might in any way oppose or criticize the UCP’s pernicious agenda.
Alberta’s unions are in the process of analyzing the many aspects of Bill 32 that will harm their ability to organize, bargain, represent, protect, and promote the rights and interests of workers, and these unions will need broad support in combating these dramatic threats.
It is vital to whole-heartedly exercise our power and express our solidarity, and the fight is clearly going to be difficult.
It is also essential that we recognize and take action to fight a further and more chilling aspect of Bill 32: its attack on the democratic rights of Albertans to engage effectively in civil society organizations to promote much-needed changes – especially those changes that run directly counter to the UCP agenda.
The elements of this type of legislation are usually only seen in particularly right-wing, union-busting state governments in the United States, are quite likely to be unconstitutional in Canada and likely won’t survive a court challenge, but here we are, and the UCP seem to take particular pride in “leading the way.” Let us make no mistake: this legislation is ideological and vindictive. It is designed to transfer enormous resources to the UCP’s wealthy friends and masters, cripple unions and associations, and silence the UCP’s civil society critics and opponents.
A key part of the legislation involves an overt attempt to cripple the ability of unions to support non-governmental organizations which advocate for progressive changes, by requiring union members to ‘opt in’ to any actions that might be deemed ‘political.’ Of course, no such restrictions are placed on wealthy corporations or their shareholders.
Many of Alberta’s unions have been generous contributors to advocacy organizations such as Public Interest Alberta and Friends of Medicare, which have focused on advocacy to improve public health care, public education, and other issues related to public services, the environment, and our democracy.
Bill 32 is clearly intended to cripple the capacity to democratically advocate for such changes, both on the part of unions and civil society organizations. It is extremely important that we recognize this as another UCP attack on the rights of all Albertans to use democratic means to criticize their government and to demand change. Bill 32 is also an ugly complement to Bill 1, which seeks to drastically limit the right to assemble and protest, and is currently being challenged in the courts by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE).
Public Interest Alberta was formed to advocate for public services, the public interest, and a more democratic and inclusive society, and we will be fighting with all our strength to resist Bill 32 and the rest of this dangerous and regressive UCP agenda.
All progressive and concerned individuals need to pay attention and act now to stand up and stand together with all workers to fight for the rights of all Albertans. This is our society, and we must act collectively to defeat this serious and dangerous attempt to erode our individual and collective rights.