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Alberta government moves to lay off more public employees -- this time provincial public service members

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Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith. Image: David J. Climenhaga

No one should assume Saturday's mass layoff of 26,000 substitute teachers, teaching assistants and non-essential support staff at schools throughout Alberta is the last such action planned by the United Conservative Party government as it attempts to game federal pandemic supports.

In a bargaining update published this morning by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the 95,000-member public-sector union told its members employed directly by the province that the Kenney government's negotiators have refused to consider agreeing to suspend job cuts until the COVID-19 crisis had passed.

The update on the state of negotiations for a new collective agreement for the union's 23,000-member government services bargaining unit began: "Your negotiations team met with the employer on Tuesday, March 24. We had one issue to discuss: Can bargaining and jobs cuts be suspended until the COVID-19 crisis has passed?

"Late on Friday, March 27, we got our answer: No. The government refused to halt jobs cuts, but did say bargaining could be delayed."

A letter of understanding agreeing there would be no loss of employment for permanent employees in AUPE's government services bargaining unit for the life of the collective agreement expires today.

"We have been told that some members will start to lose their jobs as early as this week," the union update warned. "The government has not provided details on which people would be cut in which areas or when, despite repeated requests."

Negotiators for Alberta Health Services agreed to extend a similar letter of understanding with United Nurses of Alberta on March 17.

"Just when Albertans are facing unbelievable financial stress and are turning to their government for assistance, they're going to find that those support systems are being threatened," said AUPE president Guy Smith in a news release.

"Faced with the double whammy of the pandemic and turmoil in the oil industry, it should be all hands on deck. Unfortunately, Premier Jason Kenney has chosen to throw Albertans overboard instead."

These job cuts are expected to be permanent, Smith noted, not temporary as is supposedly the case with the 26,000 school board employees whose layoffs were announced on Saturday, two weeks after the same government promised to maintain school funding until the end of the school year despite the closing of the province's schools.

"Albertans are hurting like they have never hurt before," Smith said. "They need stability now. Throwing more Albertans out of work is senseless."

The obvious inference from the government's rejection of AUPE's request is that the UCP plans to lay off civil servants and offload the costs of the firings onto federal supports as well, thereby transferring debt obligations from the province to Ottawa.

In Ottawa yesterday, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned that there would be "serious consequences" for businesses that attempt to game the federal government's 75-per-cent wage subsidy program.

"We are trusting you to do the right thing," he said. "If you have the means to pay the remaining 25 per cent that is not covered by the subsidy, do it. And if you think this is a system you can game or take advantage of, don't."

Unfortunately, there is not much the federal government can do about Conservative-run provincial governments like Alberta's that try to game federal supports to pay the high costs of their ideological programs and facilitate accounting sleights of hand to gain political advantage.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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