by Eugene Plawiuk
For ten days in November 1995, hospital workers in Calgary, Alberta forced the provincial government of Ralph Klein to the wall in a political showdown over job security, contracting out and drastic reductions in the governments Health budget.
120 Laundry workers members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 8, walked off the job on Nov.14 when their boss the Calgary Regional Health Authority declared they were contracting out their jobs to a private company. That walk out sparked sympathy strikes by other hospital workers effectively shutting down the cities hospital services.
Hospital workers, members of the provincial union; Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and CUPE, from other sectors (such as housekeeping, orderlies, aides etc.) joined in the wildcat strike. Nurses (members of the United Nurses of Alberta) along with technicians (members of the Health Sciences Guild) and some doctors staged work to rule protests in support of striking fellow workers.
The technicians eventually joined the other workers on the picket lines. All of eight of the cities hospitals were effectively shut down.
Other hospital workers in Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Grand Prairie were preparing wildcat strikes as well. The common thread that bound them was the past two years of budget cuts and restructuring instituted by the Alberta Government under the Premier Ralph Klein.
The so called Klein revolution saw major cuts to Education, Health Care and Welfare. Such cuts lead to the wholesale attempt to privatize as many government services as possible. Kleins cuts were so drastic he was applauded by the Wall Street Journal and labeled the "Newt of the North".
The cuts in Health Care were some of the deepest, along with the government restructuring, eliminating local hospital boards and creating super regional boards, filled with government appointees. These boards were then given reduced budgets and told to make cuts to staff and services.
Until the hospital workers strike Klein was the Teflon Premier. When confronted by thousands of demonstrators he told the media that "the special interest groups can scream and cry and whine but I wonít blink". Thousands attended mass demonstrations as well as many smaller demonstrations against welfare cuts, hospital closures but to no avail.
By the fourth day of the strike Ralph was blinking hard. Public support in Calgary for the strikers as well as protests against the health care cuts rattled the government. Teachers, patients, office workers, seniors, doctors, hundreds of Calgarians walked the picket line. Motorists honked in support. Trade unionists from across the province joined the laundry workers in support. Judy Darcy CUPE National President flew from Ottawa to join the strikers, as did the presidents of AUPE and the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Striking workers defied two Labour Relation board rulings to return to work. The regional Health Authority applied for a court injunction, but didnít act on it after Klein told them to back off. Public support for the strikers was too strong in a city which is the government's own home base.
Hospital workers in Edmonton faced the same issues of layoffs and contracting out as their brothers and sisters in Calgary. In fact the company hired to replace the laundry workers was already running the laundry services in two Edmonton hospitals on a nine year contract. A contract that was a sweetheart deal between the health authority, K-Bro Linen and the government.
When the Edmonton Health Authority met in a public meeting on the seventh day of the strike they were met by 300 angry hospital workers and other supporters. The AUPE and CUPE reps presented the authority a strike mandate from the workers if the Hospital Authority didnít end contracting out and cancel the laundry services contract. The Board declared it had no intention of doing nay such thing and adjourned the meeting early rather than face down the angry workers.
In Calgary 2700 workers were out by Friday Nov. 23 and another 2500 were poised to strike in the Provinces capital Edmonton. Under pressure from the Premier union leaders and the regional health authorities sat down to a marathon negotiating session lasting several days in order to avert a province wide general strike.
While the leadership of AUPE, CUPE and the Nurses union talked to the media about building a general strike, to halt the government cuts in Medicare and hospital services. The potential for a general strike was already becoming a reality thanks to the actions of rank and file hospital workers.
When the union leaders went to the negotiating table rather than declare a general strike, they abdicated the leadership that the rank and file had come to expect. This was a strike against the government, and the union leadership treated it as a local issue of a few laundry workers.
"The rank and file caught us off guard, we were surprised and had to play catch up" said one union rep about the leaderships perception of the strike.
After 19 hours of negotiations in Calgary, and 24 hours in Edmonton, the leadership accepted a deal that had been rejected by the rank and file only days before. This included a eight month moratorium on contracting out, and a two month advisement period prior to tendering. This gave the unions a chance to contract back in.
Severance packages were offered in case of contracting out or layoffs. Packages that had not been offered to hospital workers other than nurses and doctors up to that point.
Premier Klein declared a moratorium on any further budget cuts in health care for 1996. It was a stay of execution for hospital workers who still face massive layoffs and other effects from the cuts still being implemented under the governments 1995 budget reductions.
A general amnesty for all strikers was declared. In the leadershipís mind victory was declared. A general amnesty had replaced the general strike.
"We are fighting for the rest of the peopleÖwe donít want to be on strike." Said one laundry worker. That strike was to save hospitals and public sector jobs.
Hospital beds are still being closed, layoffs will continue and contracting out is still a threat. The negotiations only delayed the inevitable. The government knows it, the hospital authorities know and the labour movement knows it.
This was only the first of more wildcats to come. A week after Calgary and Edmonton workers settled, Lethbridge workers held a week long wildcat strike. Grand Prairie hospital workers, still without a contract are poised to wildcat as well.
Each new wildcat now has the potential to lead to mass action from other hospital and public sector workers and build to a general strike against the Klein government. The workers had the public on side, and the government knew it. The crisis in hospitals and in Medicare services in Alberta has become Ralph Kleinís Achilles heel.
The Progressive Conservative Government of Alberta has been in power continuously since 1971. It has gone from oil boom to protracted recession in that time. In the past the conservative government largesse to its corporate friends created a soaring debt load. Under the leadership of Ralph Klein the government embraced the Neo-liberal economic band wagon and blamed social spending for its deficit problems.
Since his election in 1993 Klein has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from health care, Education and Social Services. He has embraced restructuring education and health so that it can be privatized, the ultimate model for health care is American style HMO's and the creation of government sanction private clinics. In hospitals whole departments are being contracted out, cutting hospitals service as we once knew them.
Using the language of self sacrifice and folksy homilies Klein has made Albertans think that his cuts are a form of "short term pain for long term gain".
In reality the cuts Albertans have had in the public services in the past two years are equal those now being proposed by Klein's clone in Ontario Mike Harris. He has yet to make those cuts and is phasing them in over five years!
Protests did happen were down played by the government and the press until now. Klein used the New Zealand approach and cut everywhere at once while restructuring, either through privatization or grabbing the tax base of local communities and boards. By attacking the whole public sector at once no unified opposition could be mounted. But Medicare and hospital service's were the most visible of those cuts, and the chickens finally came home to roost.
Medicare had been cut in Alberta and the Federal government announced it was about to cut those funds even further. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and social movements ( such as seniors and consumer groups, doctors etc.) declared the first week of November National Save Medicare week. CLC President Bob White ended his cross country tour that week in Alberta, where the cuts Klein had implemented showed what would happen with the Federal cuts.
The Canadian Energy, Communications and Paperworkers (CEP) Union traveled each of Canada's ten provinces with an ambulance promoting the Save Medicare campaign.
In Alberta the Friends of Medicare a trade union supported coalition was circulating a petition against two tier medicine in Alberta. It was so successful that they extended the deadline from Oct.31 to Nov. 30. On Nov. 30 hey presented a petition with 67,000 signatures on it, and still more to come.
The Alberta Medical Association, the doctors in Alberta, organized a protest campaign against the cuts, saying they had to stop taking out radio, TV and newspaper ads with a 1-800 complaint/protest line. They launched their campaign the same week the laundry workers walked out.
It was in this heated atmosphere of public attention and outcry over Medicare that ignited the wildcat strike. Public support fanned the protests, in the end a newspaper poll done showed that strikers had the support of 70% of the public. The cuts had gone too far even for normally conservative Calgarians.
An edited version of this article was published January,1996, in Labor Notes
Ten Days That Shook Alberta is the work and sole property of Eugene W. Plawiuk.
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