AUPE strikers in 1980

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!

After a spell during which he appeared to be missing in action, Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk resurfaced in the news columns Thursday to offer the opinion humongous salaries paid to well-connected Tory retainers in the nosebleed seats of the civil service are a meaningless distraction from the serious business of ensuring we all live within our means.

Given what he had to say, the mystery is not why Lukaszuk was replaced by Deputy Premier Dave Hancock as the government’s spokesperson on the outrageous-labour-practices file, but why he’s been allowed to start commenting on it again!

Yes, Lukaszuk observed, the fact that the Progressive Conservative government’s own “Sunshine List,” first published a week ago, reveals the top echelons of the civil service are stuffed with people paid multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars — Janet Davidson, c’mon down! — can be a little “awkward” when you’re trying to hammer the lowliest civil servants’ union into the dirt, “there’s no doubt about it.”

This is especially true when it turns out that only 88 of the 22,000 or so unionized and supposedly overpaid rank-and-file civil servants you intend to force by legislative diktat to take a two-year wage freeze made it onto the list of government employees with base pay over $100,000.

But really, Lukaszuk explained, “we’re dealing with different job descriptions with different roles.” Like apples and oranges, you might say.

And, actually, somebody did say that — back in inflationary 1979, when the sainted Peter Lougheed was still premier of Alberta, MLAs voted themselves a 47 per cent pay increase just before the government decreed two-year salary guidelines of 7 and 9 per cent for the front-line sluggos of the civil service.

When someone pointed out the obvious, the provincial treasurer, who was then Lou Hyndman, is said to have responded: “You’re talking about apples and oranges!”

In the predictable brouhaha that followed the result was an illegal st**ke by more than 4,000 civil servants!

But that was then and this is now when, under the government of Premier Alison “Scott Walker” Redford, it’s illegal even to say the word st**ke out loud or mumble it in your sleep. It may even be illegal to think it and keep your thoughts to yourself — the lawyers are still arguing about that one.

Back in 1980, AUPE’s mildly hyperbolic assessment when the  dust settled was that they’d “effectively challenged rigged arbitration rules and the ban on st**kes.”

Now, of course, thanks to the Redford Government, there’s no arbitration, rigged or otherwise, and there will be no st**kes either — at least until the Supreme Court of Canada has an opportunity to consider the matter.

Today, though, at least some of the top levels of the civil service and the premier’s political aides are still receiving pay increases not unadjacent to 50 per cent, while the front-line’s salary guidelines have been reduced to zero.

The premier, meanwhile, recently jetted briefly off to South Africa at the mildly controversial cost of $45,000 for herself and a single aide, a trip that cost the premier of Nova Scotia the much less impressive sum of slightly less than $950. But then, he didn’t have as far to go, did he?

All of which led Lukaszuk to observe: “These situations, the premier has already spoken to it, they are not reflective of what the cabinet’s position is on moving forward with finances. We know we have to live within our means.” (Emphasis irresistibly added.)

It’s just that, apparently, some of the means we are going to have to live within are bound to be somewhat smaller than others, just as some of our belts are going to have to be a few notches tighter than the ones in the premier’s party.

Indeed, Redford responded to the outrage over her travel bill by blaming her staff and claiming that, had she known it was going to cost so much, she wouldn’t have gone. Not, readers will note, that she would have had someone look for a cheaper ticket, or, quelle horreur, ridden in the back of the plane with the lumpenproletariat.

Yes, there is a powerful whiff around this Redford Government of “Let them eat cake!”

And when it comes to what Lukaszuk has to say about it, well, you just can’t make this stuff up!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...