As fears grow among Alberta’s public sector unions over the potential for what they say could be thousands of job cuts looming, a large gathered at Edmonton’s MacEwan University on Monday night to discuss their concerns with the direction Premier Jason Kenney and his government are taking the province.
Dubbed a “Resistance Town Hall,” the event marked the third such forum organized by the Alberta Federation of Labour in recent weeks. Similar town halls were held in Calgary and Lethbridge.
“Every time we have a meeting, the interest in our campaign to push back against Jason Kenney’s irresponsible agenda of tax cuts and rollbacks and privatization, the support for the campaign just grows and grows,” said Gil McGowan, president of the AFL. “What I’m hearing from our members and people attending these town halls is that Jason Kenney should start to be referred to as the bait-and-switch premier.
“We feel very strongly that the budget that he has introduced, is a blueprint and a roadmap for disaster.”
McGowan criticized Kenney and his UCP government’s corporate tax cuts along with October’s budget which focused on reining in spending.
“The cuts that it includes will be devastating for the services that many public sector workers provide,” he said.
“We’re going to lose thousands and thousands of jobs, but it’s not just the jobs we’re talking about — we’re talking about the services that ordinary Albertans rely on every day… education, health care, infrastructure — all these things that we count on and also provide a strong foundation for our economy.”
Last week, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said letters sent to unions by the provincial government recently have it bracing for as many as 5,900 public sector jobs possibly being cut.
“All of it is building to one objective — to have AUPE members ready to take strike action if we are left with no other options,” AUPE president Guy Smith told reporters on Monday.
Health Sciences Association of Alberta president Mike Parker said Monday that the government’s letters to unions have come without consultation.
“They have not spoken to those who are the health-care experts that work on the front lines,” he said.
“You talk a lot about us, but why won’t you talk with us,” asked United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith.
“This premier has made no effort to talk to any of us.”
Health Minister Tyler Shandro told reporters the letters sent to the unions are simply the required disclosure ahead of collective bargaining the government is preparing for with many public sector workers.
“Now that they have the best information that they have with these disclosure statements, it gives them the ability then to be able to come and meet with our team at the negotiating table and be able to negotiate,” he said.
Shandro added that Albertans should not worry that health care in the province is at-risk.
“We’re going to continue to maintain or increase our health-care spending in the system,” he said.
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley offered a different perspective in the Alberta legislature on Monday.
“He lied to Albertans.”
At the UCP’s annual general meeting in Calgary over the weekend, Kenney fired back at critics of his government’s fiscal approach.
“They’re making this out to be the arrival of the apocalypse,” he said. “This is ridiculous. This is by modern Canadian fiscal standards one of the most modest periods of fiscal restraint. So I just wish everybody would be a little more objective in their language around this.”
Kenney added that he wanted to “minimize any effect on our public services, including our teachers and nurses.”
“We value what they do. I would just plead with them to look at the general economic and fiscal situation of this province,” he said.
McGowan said he fears the UCP’s fiscal approach could do further harm to an already fragile economy and that he worries it could even lead to a recession.
“Unlike previous recessions, which were the result of forces outside of the control of government — like the collapse in the price of oil… This one will be a choice by the Kenney government,” he said.
McGowan added that the Albertans who oppose the government’s measures should be vocal about their discontent.
“Citizens have a role to express themselves democratically between elections and say, ‘This is not what we voted for,'” he said.
–With files from Global News’ Tom Vernon and The Canadian Press’ Lauren Krugel