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Some Alberta seniors will soon be eating better meals -- they can thank the union for them

Fred Horne

One of the least successful experiments of the short, unhappy reign of Stephen Duckett as CEO of Alberta Health Services was the so-called 21-day menu, the unpalatable tinfoil- and plastic-wrapped meals that were trucked in, reheated and fed to helpless residents.

Cooks who once prepared nutritious and more appetizing meals at more than 70 public long-term care facilities around the province were let go or assigned to other duties.

The TV dinner-style meals were hauled in by reefer truck from factories in faraway places like Ontario and Pennsylvania, just in case you were wondering if they came from a nearby, centralized kitchen.

Duckett's idea when he championed this scheme was apparently that it would save money. Whichever senior manager did the cost estimates for the Australian PhD economist, who was fired by the government in November 2010 after the Notorious Cookie Incident, must've used a wonky calculator. If the scuttlebutt is to be believed, it ended up costing about 6 per cent more.

The packaged menu was recycled every 21 days -- hence the name -- although, a lot of it was recycled in the conventional sense a lot more frequently than that, because residents couldn't bear to choke down their sickening meals and the leftovers went straight into the recycling bin out back.

Now the Alberta Government has announced that -- rather like Duckett himself -- the 21-day menu has passed its best-before date, at least in Alberta's long-term care facilities.

In a terse news release that never mentioned the term "21-day menu," Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said yesterday he has directed AHS "to discontinue the practice of preparing meals offsite and reheating, and bring back on-site food preparation services in the long-term care facilities it operates."

There will be rejoicing in nursing homes throughout Alberta, and rightly so.

And good for Horne for making this decision -- it likely took some courage on his part to overcome bureaucratic inertia within his department and the monolithic province-wide health authority. Horne said in the release that a plan must be given to him by October, and it must be put into in operation at 73 facilities by December. That should mean decent meals are again being served to approximately 2,700 residents by Christmastime.

But while you're cheering, don't forget that this never would have happened without the efforts of a labour union -- the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represented the small group of cooks directly affected by this foolish policy.

AUPE put a lot of effort into fighting the 21-day menu, even though it didn't really have a lot to gain from it -- after all, the number of AUPE members affected was a drop in the bucket out of the union’s close to 90,000 members. What's more, only a few actually lost their jobs. If AUPE gets any additional members because of today's decision, it'll probably be fewer than a dozen.

While it's all very well to say that residents and their families raised a ruckus about these inedible meals -- they screamed bloody murder, as a matter of fact -- it's said here they would have been ignored if it hadn't been for the ability of AUPE to take collective action on behalf of its members, and on behalf of the rest of us.

Working with a Calgary-based advertising agency called Scout Communications, which does a lot of work for unions, AUPE created a documentary video that explained in terms anyone could understand why the meals were so bad, and what needed to be done about them. That video had enormous impact when it went viral on the Internet.

It was obvious AUPE and Scout had created something really remarkable when the video started showing up on right-wing websites, being distributed virally by Canadians (and some Americans too) all across the political spectrum and even became the topic of a Wildrose Party press release calling on the government to re-hire local cooks at these facilities.

Wherever that video appeared, it was accompanied by statements like these, picked off a social media site at random:

-    "The food at the Bashaw long care is gross. Trucked in ,reheated and fed to the residents if they can choke it down. If not they go hungry and the slop is thrown in the garbage."
-    "Who came up with this idea they should have to eat it, All these people have to look forward to is a good meal with good smells how dare you take that away from them and then not listen to the people who are dealing withit every day. Shame on you as a government."
-    "This vidio should be aired on all the TV networks several times to make sure everybody sees it. Maybe a HUGE public outcry would change some poiicy. Then again I believe the PC party could care less."

I'm sure readers will pardon the errors of spelling, punctuation and grammar. This stuff comes straight from the heart.

Pretty soon a local broadcaster got into the act, asking its food reviewers to rate the 21-day meals (two thumbs down!) and making fun of the government.

It was that kind of response to the AUPE video, let it be said, that lit the fire under the government -- the heat from which led directly to Horne's announcement yesterday.

Remember this when right-wing think-tanks, on-air bloviators and market-fundamentalist political parties like the Ontario Conservatives, led by former Wal-Mart manager Tim Hudak, talk about restricting the ability of unions to do anything but negotiate contracts, and to tie their hands so they can't do that very well. This is precisely the kind of thing they’re trying to stop.

These well-funded corporate-backed groups will tell you they're just supporting "worker choice," "the right to work" and an end to "forced union dues." This is all hot air. They want to make it impossible for working people to act collectively, in their workplaces and outside of them, because they see that as being to their political and financial advantage. When people like the Fraser Institute say they are only worrying about your rights -- watch out!

Perhaps this is why Lorne Gunter, the far-right Sun Media columnist and longtime friend of the Fraser Institute, launched an attack on AUPE last night, posted to the Suns' websites about eight hours after Horne's announcement. Or perhaps it was merely a coincidence and yesterday was chosen for some other reason for the old climate change denier to start reciting old-fashioned market fundamentalist bromides about unions in general and AUPE in particular.

Regardless, everyone is going to say they’re delighted by Horne's decision yesterday -- but, behind the scenes, a lot of far-right ideologues are going to find this decision very tough to swallow and will be vowing revenge on AUPE.

One way they'll try to get it -- as in Gunter's screed -- will be to encourage more private sector, for-profit nursing homes, and fewer facilities like the 73 under AHS control. That's a topic for another day.

In the mean time, let's celebrate this small victory. Here's to decent food for seniors. As Horne said, "They deserve to live in comfort and dignity and enjoy food that is not only nutritious, but looks and tastes home-cooked and satisfies cultural food preferences."

And here's to AUPE for making it happen.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary. Just so you read it here first, David Climenhaga once worked for AUPE. He no longer does.

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