Horne says province trying to mend relationships with MDs
CALGARY — Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said he's not aware of political intimidation in the province's medical system — and said the Tory government is trying to mend its relationship with physicians.
Under fire from opposition critics at a health-care town hall Tuesday, Horne acknowledged Alberta's medical system is in a "tumultuous" time, but said there's no crisis and the government is taking steps to improve public health care.
"I do not believe our health-care system as a whole is in crisis in Alberta," Horne said. "There are some relationships in our health-care system that need attention."
About 200 community members, physicians and other health-care professionals attended the forum Tuesday.
With an election call potentially just weeks away — and Alberta's doctors promising to ramp up public advocacy — Horne and representatives from four opposition parties fielded questions on politically charged health-care problems.
Horne fended off accusations from opposition parties that the Redford government has lost the trust of health workers and Albertans over its handling of medical issues in the wake of a scathing Health Quality Council of Alberta report.
Alberta Liberal health critic Dr. David Swann said a "chronic uncertainty" in the system must be resolved.
"The professionals in the system have not seen the kind of changes that would actually build trust, build a sense of solidarity, and a plan going forward they can buy into," he said.
Heather Forsyth of the Wildrose contended the health-care system is "broken," and the government must do a better job managing resources.
The panel, hosted by the Alberta Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association and the Calgary Herald, also included Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor and Alberta NDP candidate Shannon Phillips.
It comes as the government has promised to enact 21 recommendations to improve care following the health quality council report last month that found lengthy emergency-room waits and widespread problems of physicians being bullied.
A judicial inquiry on health care will only examine allegations of queue-jumping in the Alberta medical system.
The health quality council report found stories of physicians who were being intimidated, but didn't identify specific cases.
"If we really want accountability in this system, we need that full judicial inquiry and we need it now, not after the election," Phillips said.
"Why don't we do what Albertans want, instead of what the government wants, in regards to the inquiry?" said Forsyth.
Horne said Tuesday the government has already begun work to build a "just and trusting" culture in health care and an inquiry isn't needed into physician intimidation. Asked whether there are cases of political interference from cabinet or caucus in the instances of intimidation documented in the report, Horne said: "Not to my knowledge."
The forum covered a broad range of issues, including plans for the Redford government's new family care clinics, alternate models of payment for physicians and an increased role for Alberta's pharmacists.
The province's plan for continuing care spaces also came under the microscope. The government has committed to reducing acute care bed occupancy to 95 per cent by Oct. 31, and that means, in part, ensuring more seniors are moved from hospital beds into nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
The health minister said there are 14,600 long-term care beds in Alberta, and as of January, about 325 Albertans waiting in acute care beds for the spaces.
"We're interested in placing people in facility-based care who need it. We are equally interested in facilitating a return to home with appropriate support for people who don't need to be in a facility."
Forsyth noted that in 2010, the government said Alberta had 14,800 long-term care beds and questioned why the number has gone down while the need increases.
Grilled about the new family care clinics, promised by Premier Alison Redford during her Tory leadership bid, Horne said work is underway to open three pilot projects by the end of this month. The centres are supposed to support better primary care in Alberta by having a team of health professionals in one facility with extended hours.
Critics questioned how the centres will be different from existing primary care networks. Horne said the family care clinics will be designed to offer small communities services to meet their unique needs.
Tuesday's forum came as the AMA appealed for an end to political interference in physician advocacy, and promised a "higher level of public advocacy."
The group took out full-page ads in the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, asking, "Just how sick is Alberta's health-care system."
The ads, which were published as doctors have been without a long-term agreement since March 2011, state that advocacy "requires physicians being involved in decisions that really matter surrounding the care of you and your family. It also requires an end to political interference and the creation of a respectful relationship between Alberta's doctors and the government."
Last month the Tory government imposed a one-year salary arrangement on Alberta doctors, including a two per cent increase in fees and a boost to the amount given to primary care networks to $62, up from $50 per enrolled patient.
Negotiations on a long-term deal with doctors are continuing.
Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 7 2012 Byline: Jamie Komarnicki
Albertans overwhelmingly want a public inquiry into doctor intimidation - a probe the governing Tories have refused to call - but a slim majority think PC Leader Alison Redford has kept her word on the issue, according to a new poll.
A Leger Marketing telephone survey of 1,215 Albertans, conducted March 22-25 for the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, also found more than half are satisfied with the public health-care system.
Yet, nearly six in 10 Albertans want the option to buy their own coverage from private medical providers.
The survey probed Albertans' attitudes toward health care, a $16-billion provincial system that continues to be the top issue for voters as they head to the polls on April 23.
On the private care question, having the option to pay was more popular among those living in Calgary, or outside the province's two major cities, compared to Edmonton - where just half of voters said people should be able to pay for their own health-care services from private medical providers.
Wildrose party supporters are the most likely to favour private health-care options, followed by PCs. Among those who say they will vote for the Liberals and the NDP, there is significantly less support.
Ian Large, Alberta vice-president for Leger Marketing, said he was surprised by the large number of Albertans who answered in the affirmative. But he noted "we didn't ask 'do you want to pay for private health care,' but 'do you think we should have the freedom to pay for it.'"
John Church, a University of Alberta political scientist who studies health policy, said as the years pass and governments can't satisfy the public over wait lists and access to service, demand will increase for private alternatives.
The private provision of services can be more effective in some instances, Church added. But overall, his research has found a strong public system works best where no one has to produce a credit card to see a doctor.
"That alone is worth any of the other hassles we have to deal with."
Overall, Leger found 57 per cent of Albertans are satisfied with the health-care system - and satisfaction is consistent across the province.
The poll also asked two questions about the public health-care inquiry called by the Redford government last month.
On the heels of a scathing Health Quality Council of Alberta report in February, the Tory government announced a judge-led inquiry will look into "improper preferential access" to publicly funded medical services.
The council's probe found widespread instances of physicians experiencing "intimidation and muzzling" after advocating for patients, but it did not assign blame or identify specifically who did the intimidating.
Concerns about physician intimidation will not be specifically looked at by the panel, unless it is related to queue-jumping. The government is instead setting up two new health task forces, exploring governance issues and the role of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.
That's not good enough for most Albertans.
According to the Leger poll, 71 per cent of Albertans said the government should hold an inquiry into the intimidation of doctors that was found in the council's report.
At the same time, exactly half of respondents said they believe Redford lived up to her promise to hold an inquiry - given during last year's PC party leadership race - by calling a probe into health care queue-jumping last month. Eighteen per cent say they don't know, while almost onethird say Redford did not live up to her word.
"She probably needs to be concerned about that," Large said. "Enough Albertans don't think we've heard the end of the discussion."
Earlier this month, the Alberta Medical Association took out full-page ads in Alberta newspapers, urging the government to call a full inquiry.
The ads have received hundreds of responses and the issue has gained traction, said AMA president Dr. Linda Slocombe.
"I think we have the public awareness around the issue," Slocombe said.
The Leger poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, although regional margins are higher.
Calgary Herald, Thurs Mar 29 2012 Byline: Kelly Cryderman, with files from Jamie Komarnicki
Liberals say government is 'hiding abysmal record' until after election
CALGARY — A regular Alberta Health Services three-month report card on wait times and medical data across the province will be delayed several weeks — potentially until after the spring election — as it undergoes government review.
Opposition critics contended the Tory government is holding on to the health superboard's third quarter report on surgery, emergency department and cancer therapy wait times until after the vote to ward off unwanted attention on the heated health care file.
But Health Minister Fred Horne said the government is "absolutely not" stalling on the report — rather is looking at how specific resources in the new provincial budget might improve performance in some problematic health care areas.
"We want to be able to talk about specific things we're trying to do to improve performance in specific areas," Horne said in an interview.
"Taking into account resources we might be able to apply in the budget after it's passed is part of that."
An AHS spokeswoman said the performance report — providing data from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011 — will likely be on the board's public agenda in May or June.
The reports are generally released roughly every three months. The last quarterly report on performance measures was made public following a Dec. 8 AHS board meeting.
The newest figures on performance measures, however, were "delayed" and weren't ready for approval when the AHS board met in Canmore last week, said AHS communications vice-president Colleen Turner.
The next board meeting isn't until May 3.
With the passing of the provincial budget yesterday. the PC government is expected to drop the election writ by next week and send voters to the polls in late April.
Before the board can approve it, the AHS report card must first be forwarded to the Alberta Health and Wellness (AHW) Department for "review, recommendations, and the joint development of action plans and timelines tied to improving the results," Turner said in an email.
"We want to work with AHW on a closer link between the results and the budget being developed now."
The medical data will be sent the government by the end of the month, she added.
The previous performance report showed the medical system is making improvement in some key areas, but still falling below its own targets in many areas.
Liberal Leader Dr. Raj Sherman accused the Tory government of trying to keep the information from Alberta voters.
"The PCs are desperate. They're hiding an abysmal record on health care from voters," Sherman said.
He said the delayed report is a sign of the "blurred" boundaries between the Health Department and AHS, which provides medical care to Albertans.
Wildrose health critic Heather Forsyth said the government should allow the report to be seen on schedule.
"This government is notorious for hiding things they don't want Albertans to see," she said.
"If they had something to brag about, you can be guaranteed that report would have been released."
Calgary Herald, Mar 21 2012 Byline: Jamie Komarnicki
CALGARY — Liberal Leader Raj Sherman kicked off his party's campaign in Calgary on Tuesday with charges that the intimidation of health-care workers extends far beyond doctors.
Sherman sat side-by-side in a news conference with nurse Terri Reuser, who said she paid a price for raising concerns about the deterioration of care and the mistreatment of elderly patients with dementia in a long-term care facility in Black Diamond.
The problems began in 2006, when the facility was under the Calgary Health Region and became worse after the formation of Alberta Health Services in 2008, Reuser said.
Problems such as bedsores and infections became more prevalent, she said.
Reuser alleges that a staff member had twisted the arm of an elderly patient behind her back to make her go to bed. The woman fell and required stitches to her head.
Another patient was slapped by a staff member, she said.
Reuser said she raised concerns about the problems to the facility administration and was "interrogated, bullied, just made to feel incompetent."
"I was shunned."
She wrote a letter to AHS and was told an investigation would be launched, but Reuser said she has never been told what resulted.
Sherman said the situation is part of a much greater problem with the system under the PC government, pointing to a Herald story last week that showed there have been 1,000 confirmed cases of elderly and disabled Albertans being abused in provincially funded facilities over the past seven years
He said Reuser's story is a piece with last month's Health Quality Council of Alberta report that found half the doctors who responded to a survey felt they had been stopped from advocating for their patients. About 20 per cent said they'd experienced "active harmful obstruction."
"It's beyond the bullying of doctors," said Sherman, an emergency room physician. "We have more than 30,000 nurses in this province and we as doctors can't do our job without all the nurses and the health staff. These are the angels of the health system who are right beside us. . . . Nurses are bullied as well as are all front line staff. And this is unacceptable in this province."
The Liberals are calling for the doubling of funding for home care and an additional $180 million for the construction of new, long-term care facilities.
Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford said the government hasn't denied the allegations of intimidation in the health system and is taking steps to deal with the issue.
A situation affecting seniors such as the one described by Reuser is a "tragedy," Redford said.
"We have to make sure that there are as few of those as possible," she said. "Unfortunately sometimes in the health are system there are circumstances that arise that really do lead to really unfortunate situations. What we have to do is make the system better. . . . We have to make sure that they're reported and we have to make sure we don't let them happen again. That's actually solving the problems."
In 2010, the governing Tories proclaimed the Protection of Persons in Care legislation to make it against the law not to report abuses.
Door-knocking later with former party leader David Swann in the trendy Hillhurst neighbourhood of his Calgary-Mountain View riding, Sherman is hoping the Liberals can add to the party's four seats in the city with a split between the front-running conservative parties.
Early polls have shown the long-governing Tories and the Wildrose party in a dead heat.
"Our chances are very good. There is a perfect 50-50 split on the right wing and there are a lot of progressive Calgarians. . . . I believe we can make big inroads," he said.
Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 28 2012 Byline: James Wood
'Start moving forward,' Alberta left urged: Parkland Institute head tells progressives to lay out their education and health-care vision for province
Alberta's progressives should stop defending the status quo and start defining their own visions for provincial policy, the head of the left-wing Parkland Institute said Saturday.
In a fiery address at the end of a conference on economic and social policy, Ricardo Acuna urged Alberta's left to lay out what it wants in health care and education, rather than just organizing to battle against periodic cuts.
"It's time to stop fighting back and start moving forward," Acuna told the audience of about 80.
"It's time to stop being embarrassed or apologizing for our political positions. It's time to stop defending a status quo we find inadequate and start fighting for radical proposals."Acuna was speaking after two days of sessions organized by the Parkland Institute and the Alberta Federation of Labour.
In one talk earlier Saturday, economist Greg Flanagan told the crowd that despite ballooning deficits, Alberta's budget problems are about revenue, not spending.Adjusted for population, Alberta takes in billions less in tax revenue than any other province, said Flanagan, who recently retired from the University of Lethbridge. Even minor boosts to consumption or income taxes could easily eliminate the province's nearly $5-billion deficit, he added.
Flanagan's talk hit on a number of recurring themes at the conference, most notably that Alberta's tax system is unfair and that, during a recession, more public spending, not less, is needed.
Acuna, though, urged the attendees to move away from talk about balance sheets. Progressives should lay out explicit plans for the systems they want and only then ask people to pay more for them, he said.
"How did we get here?" Acuna asked. "How did we start talking about the bottom line, not people?"
Answering his own question, he laid part of the blame on the news media."Twenty years ago, we had labour reporters in this province," he said.He also called on progressives to make their voices heard.
"Can you imagine if we had commentators as far to the left as (radio host Dave) Rutherford is to the right?" he asked.
"Can you imagine if we had columnists as far to the left as ( Edmonton Journal columnist) Lorne Gunter is to the right?"
The weekend conference, which took place at the University of Alberta, featured panels on alternatives to tax and spending cuts, lessons learned from the Klein-era cuts and public policy solutions, among others.
The Parkland Institute is a nonpartisan research centre at the university.
Edmonton Journal, Sun Feb 14 2010Byline: Richard Warnica
Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, April 2003
As trade unionists we are currently living through a period that can best be described as schizophrenic.
It's a time of big challenges - some of the most serious we've ever faced. But, on the other hand, I believe it's also a time of new hope and new opportunities.
This afternoon, I'd like to start with the positives & and so I'll make a positive statement.
I'm convinced that we're starting to see the first tell-tale signs that the long winter of knee-jerk, business-first politics that has dominated our country since the days of Brian Mulroney may finally be coming to an end.
This may seem like a surprising claim to make - especially here in Alberta. And especially considering all the talk we've been hearing lately from our provincial government about taking away the right to strike from health care workers, imposing agreements and fining unions millions of dollars.
There is no doubt that, in the halls of power, things are as bad as they've ever been - maybe worse.
But on the ground - in communities, in homes, in coffee shops - attitudes are changing.
After Enron and Worldcom and all the other corporate scandals that have come to light over the past year, people are no longer so willing to put blind faith in the business community
Ordinary Canadians are also becoming more and more skeptical of the corporate agenda that our governments have been pursuing for the past fifteen years.
Yes, our leaders are still talking about budget cuts, privatization, wage roll-backs, down-sizing, trade deals and tax cuts for the well-off. And, yes, here in Alberta, the government seems to be rev-ing up for a war on unions.
But poll after poll tells us that ordinary Canadians are on a different page.
Joe and Jane Canadian no longer agree with the National Post and the Fraser Institute that cutting the debt and cutting taxes are the big issues. And they don't agree with the Ralph Klein's of the world who argue that unions are the root of all evil.
What people are really concerned about are things that affect their pocketbook; things that affect their communities; and things that affect their families.
In fact, Canadians are now starting to focus on many of the things that we in the labour movement have been talking about for years: things like health care; education; jobs; and the environment.
Recent polls have also shown some interesting shifts in the political landscape.
A few years ago the Reform party and then the Canadian Alliance were driving the agenda in this country. They weren't in government, but for most of the 90s they succeeded in moving the political centre of gravity in this country far to the right.
But today, according to the latest EKOS poll, the Alliance has slipped to 10 percent of popular support - down from more than 25 percent less than a year ago.
At the same time, the NDP has jumped to nearly 18 percent - from just nine percent during the last election.
Even here in Alberta - where we've basically had one-party rule for more than six decades - support for the Conservative party has notched down slightly for the first time in years.
By themselves, none of these signs can be described as revolutionary. But taken together, the signs suggest that something is going on - something is changing under the surface.
It's like the first warm day after a long winter. The snow still covers everything - but there is a steady "drip, drip, drip" that tells us that things are going to change - that the snow will be gone soon - and that the cold will soon be replaced by something more hospitable.
For those of us in the labour movement who have endured nearly twenty years of anti-union, neo-conservative winter - a spring thaw would certainly be welcome.
And that's exactly what seems to be happening. The pendulum is swinging. And this time it looks like it's swinging with us - not into us.
That's the good news. But as I said off the top, the world we in live today is not all roses.
On the negative side of the ledger, we face a number of serious challenges - some more frightening and more dangerous for our members than anything we've ever faced before.
How bad is it? To be honest, there's a whole shopping list of concerns.
Here in Alberta, the latest attack on workers and workers rights comes in the form of Bill 27 - a bill to amend the Alberta Labour Code.
We've all been talking about this Bill - but it's important to be clear about what is being proposed:
Bill 27 strips the right to strike from thousands of people working in community health care. It attacks the right of ALL health care workers to choose their own union. It denies workers access to severance pay-outs if their jobs are contracted out. It removes decision-making power from impartial tribunals like the Labour Relations Board and hand it over to the provincial cabinet And it sets up a process that will almost certainly give regional health authorities the power to impose inferior agreements on health care workers. From our perspective at the AFL, Bill 27 is just the first shot in what may turn into a war on workers waged by the Alberta government against unions in this province.
Within the next few months, we expect that teachers will also be targeted.
In an effort to weaken the ATA, this government will introduce a new law splitting ATA's union and professional functions.
And then there will be a law taking away their right to strike.
The government will use the same excuses they're using now with health care workers. They'll say that it's about protecting the public. They'll say it's about maintaining essential services.
But we all know what this is really all about. It's about power. It's about control. And it's about slapping down and punishing groups who dare to stand up for themselves.
The truth is that, in many ways, unions are the real opposition in this province.
The nurses stood up and won 22 percent for their members. The teachers stood up and won 14 percent. And it was CUPE and the hospital workers in Calgary who stood up seven years ago and stopped the Klein government from implementing the last of its planned cuts in health care.
Aside from labour, no other group in this province has dared to defy the Tories. No other group has gone toe-to-toe with them. And no other group has made them blink.
That's why unions are being targeted in Bill 27. And it's why we're all in for a fight over the next year.
We at the AFL will be working with affiliates and labour councils to help coordinate the fightback. In fact, the AFL and seven unions representing health care workers have already launched an international challenge of Bill 27 under NAFTA.
We're also considering legal action in the courts here in Alberta. And we're working on a protocol that will see all of our union work together in fighting this backward piece of legislation.
The government may think they can ram this law through under the cover of the war in Iraq. They may think they can ram it through without public scrutiny and without public protest.
But today I have a message for them. We will not go quietly. We will not roll over. And will not stand idly by while the rights of our members are trampled!
I wish I could say that the bad news for workers in this province stops with Bill 27. But it doesn't.
Here in Alberta, we have a government that is literally floating on money - but they still won't spend it on our schools or on other services that really matter to people.
Instead, they want to hand our tax dollars over to investors in the private-sector by increasing the number of so-called public-private-partnerships. The record on P3s is clear - wherever they've been tried, they've failed. But this government is ignoring the evidence and they're pushing forward - even though they know P3s will cost more, delivery less and put good jobs at risk.
P3s and Bill 27 are just two items on the list of challenges we're facing.
I could add more: like a war in the Middle East that almost nobody in this world wants; like a federal government that likes to portray itself as progressive, but which has cut services to a level we haven't seen since the '50s; or like the threat posed to working people by ill-conceived international trade agreements.
The list goes on - but the point is: we have our work cut out for us.
The irony in all this is that - just as the public seems to be getting tired of the right-wing crowd - conservative governments here Alberta and across the country seem to be getting bolder. And they're getting meaner.
The big question now is how do we respond to the challenges I've just talked about - and how do we capitalize on the opportunities that come with a more progressive shift in public opinion?
One option would be to do nothing - or to do the same things we've always done.
Maybe if we simply sit tight and wait, the pendulum will swing back our way.
But then again - if all we do is wait, the pendulum may not swing at all; or it might not swing as far as we'd like it to; or might swing right past us.
As you might have guessed, we at the AFL have come to the conclusion that the labour movement has to take a more active approach.
That's one of the reasons I'm so pleased to speak at gatherings like this one. We want to spread the gospel of activism - and we want to share our ideas and experiences about what we think will work to make the labour movement stronger.
For us, it all starts with a clear vision of the role of unions.
We firmly believe that the labour movement is one of the few institutions in society that is big enough and strong enough to stand up to the corporate and political powers-that-be.
We also believe that the labour movement has an obligation to use its size, its power and its resources to not only help our own members - but also to go to bat for families, for the unorganized and for the broader communities in which we all live.
When it comes specific solutions and strategies, we don't pretend to have all the answers. But over the past seven or eight years, all of us in the Alberta labour movement have been kicked around a lot.
In the process, we've suffered a few defeats; we've enjoyed a few victories - and we've learned quite a few lessons.
Before I wrap up this afternoon, I just want to touch on the three of the most important lessons I think we've learned - lessons that we can all learn from.
First - we've learned that we can't do it alone.
Whether we're talking about an individual strike or a province-wide campaign against cutbacks, we've learned that we get better results when we have allies - especially allies from outside the labour movement.
About a year ago, Ipso-Reid released a poll that helped illustrate why building coalitions is so important.
Basically, the survey asked Canadians to rate different groups in terms of trust. Not surprisingly, politicians were at the bottom of the barrel. But union spokespeople and union leaders weren't far behind.
We may not like to admit it - but unions have a serious image problem - and a serious credibility problem. Too often we're dismissed as self-interested and out to feather our own nests.
That's why we at the AFL have made a point of building coalitions with organizations outside the labour movement - organizations that share our concerns and our priorities.
Community groups, seniors groups, student groups, religious groups, women's groups, environmental groups, health care advocacy groups, immigrant groups, anti-poverty advocates, progressive academics.
You name it - we need to forge ties and build bridges with all these groups.
And it's not just a crass attempt to steal their credibility. It's about sharing resources, sharing people power, sharing networks, sharing ideas - and working together for change.
The second lesson we've learned is that we have to do a better job of cooperating within the labour movement itself. Too often, we get trapped in silos. We keep our heads down and do our work with our own members. But the result is that we end up not seeing the forest for the trees. We also often end up recreating the wheel.
Our experience fighting Bill 11 three years ago proved this point.
The Fed could have gone off and organized its own campaign. The nurses' and CUPE and the health sciences association could each have gone off in their own directions.
But instead, we worked together as part of a broader coalition - the Friends of Medicare coalition.
The result was that, by pooling our money and our people, we were able to run a bigger, smarter and more effective campaign than we ever would have been able to pull off individually.
Over the past year, we've started to apply this logic to organizing the unorganized. In partnership with the two other prairie provinces, we're talking about establishing a central organizing school. We're even talking about joint organizing drives. So instead of competing with each other, instead of working against each other - we're working together.
That's what we mean when we talk about cooperation between unions. We think solidarity should be more than a word we sing in a song every few years at conventions.
The third and final lesson that I'd like to highlight today is that we need to get over the fear of trying new things.
When the Alberta government first started slashing in 1993, we did all the usual things. We wrote leaflets that almost no one read. We organized a few rallies that only a few hundred people attended. We sent out a few harshly worded press releases. We even circulated a petition and started a postcard campaign.
The problem was that we did exactly what Ralph Klein expected us to do - and he didn't give a crap. As long it was just the usual suspects on the Legislature steps he knew he could get away with ignoring us.
The good news is that we've finally snapped out of it. We're starting to do things more creatively and more professionally.
We've borrowed from the corporate world by using TV ads, polling and direct mail campaigns.
We've borrowed from Hollywood by rounding up real life stories of people to tell their stories to the media.
And just last month, we went back to old-style person-to-person organizing.
Through the Friends of Medicare coalition, we canvassed more than 20,000 people in Federal Health Minister Anne McLellan's Edmonton riding - and we got more than five thousand of them to sign a card saying they might not vote for her in the next election if she doesn't do something to stop for-profit delivery of health services.
The point of all this is not to illustrate how brilliant we are at the AFL. If we were really that brilliant, we wouldn't still be dealing with Ralph as Premier three elections later.
What I am trying to say is that unions can make change - even in the most inhospitable climates. We can make gains for our members and we can defend and even advance our broader social agenda.
We can do all these things by building bridges to other groups. We can do it by working together within the labour movement. And we can do it by trying new things, by working better and working smarter.
In the end, I'm convinced that we can benefit from the spring thaw that is driving Canadians away from the business-first crowd. And I'm convinced that we can beat back the attacks that are threatening our unions and our members.
The pendulum is swinging our way. If we're prepared, if we're smart, if we're creative I know we can grab on make some real headway on the issue that matter most to all of us.
As usual, CUPE will be at the forefront of all our efforts. I look forward to working with you and standing together with you in our fight to build a better Alberta.
Good luck in your deliberations. Solidarity!
Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, August 2003 (Oslo, Norway)
Good morning and thank you for the warm welcome.
As you've already heard, my name is Les Steel and I'm president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
For those of you who've never been to Canada, I'd like to start my presentation this morning with a quick geography lesson.
Canada, as you know, is the big, cold country that sits at the top of North America. It stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific in the west and the Arctic Ocean in the North.
Alberta is in the western half of the country. It's where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains.
Alberta is the petroleum capital of Canada. It's home to the Calgary Stampede. And it's where Wayne Gretzky first made his name as a hockey star.
Of course, we're not all Gretzkys. Most Albertans - like most Norwegians - have to work for a living. And that's where the AFL comes in.
Our federation represents 41 Alberta unions and 120,000 unionized workers in both the public and private sectors.
Like unions here in Norway, our first priority has traditionally been to protect and improve working conditions for our members.
But over the past ten years or so, our attention has turned to a much broader fight.
In particular, we've been engaged in a battle to preserve many of the core social programs that previous generations of Canadians fought hard to establish.
So far, our biggest fight has involved our national public health care system, which we call Medicare.
Canadians cherish Medicare. It's one of our proudest achievements - and it's something that many Canadians hold up as a defining characteristic of our country.
But despite the overwhelming support that Medicare consistently receives from the public, for most of the past decade it has been threatened with death by a thousand cuts.
And nowhere in the country has the attack on public health care been more focused and more determined than in Alberta.
Since the election of 1993 which brought the current Conservative government to power in Alberta, our provincial health system has endured unprecedented budget cuts; massive lay-offs and a growing number of attempts to privatize services.
The good news today is that many of the worst cuts have been reversed - thanks in large part to public protests organized by unions and other community groups.
But we're still dealing with a serious shortage of hospital beds and a chronic shortage of trained health care workers.
Even more significantly, our provincial government hasn't retreated when it comes to privatization. Despite widespread public opposition, they've handed over huge swathes of our health care system to the private sector - and they're continuing to chip away at the foundations of everything that's left.
That's why I'm here this morning.
I'm here to talk about our experience with so-called market-based health care reforms. I'm also here to talk about our campaigns to reverse the cuts and stop privatization.
Most importantly, I'm here to share with you a few lessons that we've picked up along the way - lessons that might prove useful in your campaign to protect the public health care here in Norway.
Making comparisons between nations is always a tricky thing - especially when those nations are on different continents, and have different cultures, languages and histories.
Comparison can also be tricky when you're talking about something as complex and dear to our hearts as health care.
But despite the distance and all other things that separate us, I think there are at least two reasons why our experience in Alberta has relevance here in Norway.
The first reason is that, if you think about it, Norway and Alberta actually have a lot in common.
We both know what cold winters are like.
We both have a lot of land and relatively few people.
We both have abundant petroleum resources that have strengthened our economies and given us the ability to pay for high-quality social programs.
And, at least for the moment, we both have tax-financed health systems that guarantee our citizens access to quality care when they need it and regardless of their ability to pay.
So, in many ways, when we compare health care in Alberta with health care in Norway, we are comparing apples with apples, not apples with oranges.
The second, and probably more important, reason why I think our experiences are relevant here in Norway is that they are hardly unique.
The truth is that Canada is not the only country that swallowed the bitter medicine offered by advocates of market-based health care reform.
Neo-liberalism has been a wave rolling across the globe for more than twenty years now.
Like a virus, it started with Margaret Thatcher in Britain in the seventies. Ronald Reagan allowed it to spread to the U.S in the early 80s. And in the late 80s and early 90s it took hold in places like New Zealand and Canada.
In many ways, the fact that the privatization wolf is only knocking on your door now is a testament to your good sense and the strong foundations you've built for your public health system.
When I look back on the past ten years of struggle that we've had in Alberta and compare it to the privatization onslaught that has taken place in other countries since the late 70s, the thing that strikes me is how similar the experiences have been.
Whether it's Canada, Britain or New Zealand, it seems that the privatizers have followed roughly the same three steps to push their agenda.
The first step has always involved fear-mongering. In particular, the privatizers attack the credibility of the public sector and sow doubts about its efficiency, its affordability and its ability to provide quality service.
In Alberta, our government spent years trying to convince people that our public health care system is unsustainable.
Despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, they told Albertans that costs were spiraling out of control. They said health care was swallowing an ever-increasing share of the provincial budget. And they warned that the aging population would bankrupt the system.
As recently as two years ago, our provincial premier was telling every reporter who would listen that the cost of Medicare in Alberta had doubled and that drastic measure needed to be taken to "save the system" from itself.
This kind of fear mongering led naturally to the second step. After manufacturing a crisis and attempting to convince people that a huge problem exists, the market boosters presented the solution - and surprise, surprise, it happened to be the market.
For conservatives, privatization is the cure-all. Markets, they say, will reduce cost, improve efficiency, and increase choice for patients. They even go so far as to say that privatization can help save public health care by "relieving pressure" on the public system.
In Alberta, as in other jurisdictions, the government moved very quickly from bad-mouthing the system to parceling out pieces to the private sector.
The first things to go were the so-called secondary services in hospitals, like the laundry, janitorial and food services.
But our government wasn't content to stop there. They also handed over almost all hospital laboratory service to for-profit companies. And they actively encouraged entrepreneurs to set up private surgical suites to perform things like cataract surgery and private diagnostic imagining services that charged patients between one and three thousand dollars for things like MRI and CT scans.
At the same time all this was happening, our government laid the ground work for more sweeping privatization by introducing legislation that would pave the way for investor-owned hospitals.
In many ways, this piece of legislation - which the government had the nerve to call the Health care Protection Act, or Bill 11 for short - was the straw that broke the camels back. After years of going reluctantly along with the government, Albertans finally started to protest. The Bill was eventually passed, but not before we organized the largest demonstrations in our province's history.
That leads us to the third step. When confronted with large scale public opposition, privatizing governments often start playing games with language.
The point here is for the privatizers to reassure the public and hide their true intentions.
This is where we're at right now in Alberta. Our government now says that it was misunderstood. They say they never really wanted to privatize health care. Instead they say they've merely been looking for alternative funding mechanisms. Or they say all they want to do is build partnerships with the private sector to deliver services within the public system.
The problem with all of this is that it's just new wrapping on the same old package. Public-private partnerships may not be quite the same thing as the wholesale privatization that exists in the United States - but it's still privatization.
So far, we in Alberta have had some successes and we've had some failures when it comes to dealing with our government's privatizing agenda in health care. As I mentioned earlier, many of the deepest spending cuts to our public system have been reversed, largely as the result of the many protests organized by unions and our partners in the community.
After years of rapid decline, we are now spending as much on a per capita basis on health care was we did in 1993. It may not sound like much, but from our perspective, that's a step in the right direction.
We've also succeeded in rolling back some privatization initiatives. For example, after running a high-profile public campaign exposing how private MRI clinics were blocking access to quick diagnosis for seriously ill Albertans, the government agreed to buy more MRI machines and run them within the public system. They even agreed to reimburse hundreds of people for the MRI and CT scans they had to pay for in the private system.
Another success we've had has more to do with what hasn't happened than what has. Two years ago, the Alberta government released a long-awaited study called the Mazankowski report which outlined plans for taking privatization in health care to the next level. In particular, it called for caps on the amount of public insurance people could have - and it opened the door for the introduction of American-style private health insurance.
The good news is that the government has not moved towards implementing either of these recommendations. In fact, even though the Mazankowski report was billed as the government's blueprint for health reform in the 21st century, almost none of it major suggestions have been acted upon.
The reasons for this are mainly political. The government has simply failed to convince Albertans to that further privatization is either prudent or desirable.
So what can you here in Norway learn from our experience in Alberta?
I think there are three lessons.
The first is don't give up without a fight.
In many ways, the deck was stacked against us in Alberta.
Historically, ours has been the most conservative province in the Canada. And Albertans like to think of themselves as free enterprisers - so you might think they would all be won over by free market argument.
But what we discovered is that even conservative voters can be persuaded of the benefits of public health care and the pitfalls of privatization. But it doesn't happen overnight - and it doesn't happen without effort and planning.
The second lesson that we learned is that there is no stronger weapon than the truth.
The advocates of privatization can sound pretty slick when they talk about the magic of competition and incentives.
And they can be persuasive when they list all the supposed weaknesses of the public system.
But private health care has a track record - and it's not a particularly impressive one.
So every time they ran down the public system and extolled the theoretical virtues of privatization, we answered back with facts.
When they implied that costs in the public sector were spiraling out of control, we showed that they we in fact stable.
When they said the private sector was cheaper and more efficient we presented evidence from around the world that it was more expensive and less efficient.
When they argued that privatization would improve access for patients, we demonstrated from experience that the opposite was true.
The good news for those of us who believe in public health care is that the verdict on privatization is in. It's been tried and it's failed. Those are the facts.
In many ways, the arguments in favour of privatization in health care are like the arguments used by the U.S. government to justify war in Iraq - they have the ring of truth, but once you scratch the surface, they have no substance.
The bottom line is that both public and private health care have a track record - but don't assume that everyone know it. As advocates of public health care it's up to us to put the good news on the table. If we do, the facts we speak for themselves.
The third and final lesson that can be taken from the Alberta experience is to involve the broader community.
Unions in our province made a decision at the beginning of our campaign to swallow our organizational pride and work in coalition with churches, seniors citizens, students and other groups in the community.
It was an important decision for us, because by ourselves, the government could afford to ignore us. But they couldn't completely ignore the other in our coalition.
This will be true here in Norway. The bigger tent you build the more power you will have politically.
Having said all that I'd like to conclude today by saying how optimistic I am about the prospects to preserving public health care in your country.
Conservatives may control your parliament today - and they may be toying with some free market notions. But it's going to be hard for them to make the case for privatization.
We now have more than 25 years of experience from around the world showing that privatized health care actually costs more and delivers less.
We're also now living in a post Enron world. Given all the examples of corporate wrong-doing that have come to light over the past few years, it's going to be harder than ever to convince people that it make sense to entrust our health to the private sector.
Here in Norway you also have the advantage of prosperity. Thanks to your oil reserves - which, by the way you've managed much better than ours in Alberta - your conservatives cannot argue that public debt is a problem and they cannot realistically claim that your health system is unsustainable.
From where I stand, the real danger for Norway may be complacency. You have a strong tradition of social responsibility; you have all the facts on your side and you have the resources to afford high quality health services. But don't under-estimate the privatizers - they have a product to sell and they can make it sound like the answer to all your problems.
The trick for you is to prick the private balloon and let the hot air out. You have to shine a bright light into the dark corners of any and all private health care proposals. And you have to expose these proposals for what they really are - self-interested sales pitches.
Based on what I've seen at this conference so far, I'm confident you will be up to the challenge.
Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, November 2003
I probably don't have to tell you that it has not been a banner year for labour or for working people in Alberta.
That's because there has never been a banner year for labour in this province since the Socreds took power in 1934. That's a whole lot of bad years for anyone who's counting.
Alberta still has the worst labour laws in Canada. We still have the lowest minimum wage and the lowest unionization rate in the country.
Workers still cannot get their most basic rights to overtime or holiday pay actually enforced. And if they actually overcome all of the barriers and get a union, all too often they end up in vicious employer-driven first contract disputes like the one currently going on at A Channel in Edmonton.
Health care workers have had their right to belong to the union of their choice stripped away by Bill 27. And it is looking like the government is going to take a run at the nurses next year.
It's pretty obvious that working people in this province desperately need a New Democratic government. But, I can honestly say that we are no closer to one today than we were in 1971.
That's why I think it really is time for us to take stock of how labour and the party work together.
The relationship between the New Democratic Party and the labour movement is going through profound changes across Canada.
Originally, the NDP was the consequence of an alliance between the Cooperative Commonwealth and the Canadian Labour Congress. Labour was not simply a supporter of the NDP - we were a founding partner.
There were many benefits to both the labour movement and the party from this partnership.
The Party received substantial and sustained funding from a dependable source and a cadre of volunteer workers during elections. The Party also received the inside track with union activists and leaders - a sort of pipeline into the organized working class.
The labour movement received substantial legislative support protecting the rights of workers and unions in those jurisdictions fortunate enough to elect New Democrat governments.
Even at the federal level, labour got some sympathetic legislation and programs as a direct result of the popular support for the NDP and its platforms during elections.
But, as with all political alliances, there were also some problems with labour's traditional alliance with the NDP.
Many New Democrats felt that 'big labour' had too much influence on party policies and party affairs - both because of dependency on labour funding and because of the allocation of convention credentials to labour affiliates.
Further, there was a criticism that labour could not 'deliver' its members' votes in the ballot box. Finally, some New Democrats worried that the connection with unions hurt the party electorally.
From labour's perspective, there were significant problems arising from feelings of betrayal when New Democrat governments passed back-to-work legislation or failed to live up to our expectations of a 'labour' government.
There was also some suspicion that the Party saw us more as a cash cow than a partner.
I believe that the tensions between organized labour and the Party have, if anything, been increasing over time.
The breakdown of our traditional relationship is nowhere more evident than in Manitoba - where a New Democrat government basically prohibited labour funding. And I know that Alberta and other provinces are looking at similar policies.
New federal legislation has also put an end to the old style labour support for the federal party.
So, the question before us is: where do we go from here?
In the labour movement, we are seriously looking for new ways to express our political programs and principles. We are trying to find ways to mobilize labour support for the NDP in this new climate.
Right now, the Alberta Federation of Labour has politically committed itself to a program of action based upon the very successful Saskatchewan Federation of Labour's Issues Campaign.
The idea is straightforward. The trade union movement will poll our own rank-and-file members to find out exactly which issues they consider to be of paramount importance.
We will then run focus groups to find out the most effective messaging for putting forward those workers' issues as policy and program demands. Following that we will run a public campaign to place these issues at the forefront of public debate.
In Saskatchewan, the issues campaign focused, among other things, on the critical importance of provincial crown corporations to peoples' quality of life.
Interestingly, the key issue upon which the election in Saskatchewan turned, was the debate over crown corporations.
In essence, we, in labour, are no longer trying to deliver our vote. It just didn't work for union leaders to 'tell' members how to vote. Our members resented it and just refused to listen.
Now, we are identifying workers' real issues and in effect creating political space for these issues.
It will be up to the New Democrats to take advantage of that space before and during elections - just as they did in Saskatchewan.
We are very excited about this new political action program. We are already stating our issues campaign in Alberta - and I believe that this will result in a real and impressive increase in support for the Party in the next election.
Moreover, I believe that the CLC will also be following suit at the national level.
I believe that labour - by running a more independent political action program - will renew worker support for the NDP.
We will see more trade unionists joining the NDP and working for the party during elections.
So to answer to my question: where do labour and the New Democrats go from here?
We go forward to a more effective, healthier relationship - one that will inevitably lead to the first New Democrat government in Alberta.
Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, October 2003
It's been 70 years since Alberta had a government that could even be loosely described as worker friendly - and I'm not really sure that the United Farmers government really fit that definition.
But since 1934 we've only had two parties in power in this province - the Social Credit from 1934 to 1971 and the Conservatives from 1971 on. Both of these parties have traditionally mistrusted labour and actively discouraged labour unions. They neither understood nor sympathized with working people and their aspirations, and took their direction from the corporate sector.
What this has meant for organized labour is a long difficult struggle for survival and a constant uphill battle to protect our members' rights and privileges.
During the last 32 years of Conservative rule, labour unions, labour centrals and labour leaders have tried a broad variety of approaches to the government. Some have sucked up to the government. Some have tried to join the government. Some have tried to ignore them.
None of those approaches have worked. If you suck up, they may throw you an occasional bone - but they will hold you in contempt. If you try to join them you will be incorporated and forgotten. If you ignore them, they will use the power of government to strip you and your organization of any power or gains you have gathered.
What this has left us as a strategy is to oppose the government. We have learned that the only rights we have are the rights we are willing to exercise - and that only when we are actively defending our rights do we have any voice at all in this province.
In fact, I can safely say that the only gains working people have ever made in this province were through mobilization and struggle or through the threat of struggle.
Now I know that none of this is new to Alberta nurses or to your union. Struggle is the forge that UNA was founded and tempered upon. I have set this in front of you both as a complement on your principles and steadfastness and as a warning.
The warning is simple. In any protracted struggle, there comes a time when leaders and rank-and-file members get tired and depressed - and want to consider accommodation as the price of peace.
It's like the guy standing on the street banging his head against a brick wall over and over again. When asked why he was doing it, he replied: 'I don't know, but it sure feels good when I stop.'
Unfortunately for unions, the second we stop taking on employers and bad governments we become part of the problem instead of the solution. The current attempt by the Regional Health Authorities to force UNA into binding interest arbitration is a case in point. It has become obvious to every intelligent observer in the province that Alberta's labour arbitration process is a loaded gun aimed at the trade union movement and our members.
Because the government is ultimately in control of who is named as the supposedly impartial chair of any arbitration board, the employers' votes will always outnumber labour's votes on any award. I know labour activists who will no longer sit as labour representatives on arbitration boards because they are tired of writing dissents and sick of being a party to unjust awards.
In fact, the number of arbitrations in Alberta used to run between 15 and 20 a year back in the early 80's. By the 90's that had dropped to only 2 or 3 a year - as more and more trade unions rejected the arbitration process.
UNA has led the rejection of interest arbitration in this province - steadfastly refusing to be forced to accept the contract stripping and inferior wages and benefits dictated by the process. But clearly, that hasn't stopped the eagerness of health authorities to make use of this biased process.
The Alberta Federation of Labour has being staying in close contact with your union throughout the current round of negotiations. It has become clear that the government and the regional health authorities have been planning a massive stripping of the rights and entitlements of nurses.
First there is the backhanded attempt through Bill 27 to create dissent both within unions and between unions from the forced combining of region-wide bargaining units. The Federation has worked hard to combat the worst effects of Bill 27. We created an ad hoc action committee of effected unions to build a common strategy and tactics to combat the legislation.
Most recently, we have challenged the impartiality of the Labour Relations Board in the entire process. That challenge has yet to be heard by the Board, but believe me; they are on very shaky ground here and may have all of their decisions to date in this matter overturned.
Secondly, there is the behaviour of the employer at the bargaining table. It seems to me that they are deliberately bargaining to impasse in the wild hope that UNA will ultimately agree to go the binding arbitration route. There is no other explanation for the employer sabotage of the bargaining process through ridiculous demands and unwillingness to make compromises.
If negotiations continue to deteriorate to the point where UNA is forced to take action to protect its members, I want to give you an absolute assurance that the Alberta Federation of Labour and all of its affiliates will be there to support you in your actions. We will mobilize the labour movement and act whenever and in whichever fashion your union wants.
Mobilizing Broad Social and Political Action
Supporting affiliates in struggle is one of the most important things labour centrals like the Alberta Federation of Labour do.
But as I said earlier, we also have to pay attention to the underlying causes of labour's constant state of heartburn in this province. After 70 years of conservative, pro-employer misrule in Alberta, it is little wonder that we have the worst labour laws in Canada; nor should it be any surprise that our most important public services and programs are constantly under attack and under-funded.
An underlying bias against working people has permeated every aspect of our government and, consequently, the very fabric of our society. If we are ever to get out of the constant struggle for survival that faces unions every time they go to the bargaining table in Alberta, we are going to have to get rid of this rotten government!
Unfortunately, this is something that is easier said than done. At election time, the employers' parties get the most funding. They get the support of the corporate media. And, they have developed very sophisticated polling and public relations capacities that allow them to manipulate the electorate through spin doctoring and deliberately mystifying issues.
Clearly, traditional labour approaches to politics have proven ineffective against the slick, well-funded corporate machine.
That's why we have just completely reworked our strategies for mobilizing opposition to the government. Following our last convention, the Federation has adopted an ambitious multi-pronged strategy to create change in Alberta.
In the electoral arena, we are directing our resources to a non-partisan 'issues' campaign. The idea, in a nutshell, is to make an accurate assessment of what working people really want - and to create a political demand for our issues through an aggressive public education campaign.
It will then be up to political parties to take advantage of the space created by the campaign.
The Federation also has initiatives to intervene in the broader, non-electoral arena of public opinion and public debate. We have struck four working groups to build public campaigns which should put real pressure on government from several different directions.
There will be a 'living wage' campaign designed to change the debate over minimum wage to a tangible demand for a living wage. It will involve mobilization of labour, church groups, social justice advocates and others.
We also have a working group mandated to create workers' resource centres across the province to provide broad services for unorganized workers.
We are also mapping out a long term campaign aimed at creating better labour laws in Alberta.
Finally, we are, with the Alberta Teachers' Association, working toward the launching of Public Interest Alberta - a broad coalition designed to protect the public good and to mobilize support for public services and public spaces.
The fundamental premise behind all of these working groups is build social and political alliances through action, and to create pressure for political change from many different directions. It's time we made the government react to our actions instead of us reacting to their actions.
As you can see, the AFL has a very ambitious agenda. We are dedicated to political change in Alberta. It is the only answer to our continued crises at the bargaining table and to the generally shabby treatment of working people in the province.
At the same time, we can and will continue to mobilize our brothers and sisters in support of unions in struggle.
I will leave you with an optimistic note. It took Albertans 37 years to get rid of the Socred government. In just 5 years time, the Tories will have been in power for 37 years. I think time is on our side.
2005 December Speaking Notes AFL All-union Meeting to discuss FOIP Revelations about the Labour Relations Board
Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, December 2, 2005
Two-and-a-half years ago, the Alberta government made some sweeping changes to the labour laws covering health care workers in this province.
The government tried to argue that Bill 27 was nothing more than administrative house-keeping. They said it was about simplification, streamlining and efficiency.
But from our perspective, it was something much more serious. It was a law essentially drafted to force concessions from health care unions that the regional health authorities had been unable to win at the bargaining table.
Bill 27 allowed the government to tear up dozens of freely negotiated contracts covering the pay and working conditions of tens of thousands of health care workers.
It forced unions into run-off votes, denying many workers the right to choose the union they actually preferred.
And it removed the legal right to strike from thousands of union members in areas like Community Health, Mental Health and Extended Care - without even attempting to justify how it would threaten the public interest if a speech pathologist, physiotherapist or community health nurse walked a picket line.
We've had our share of anti-union labour laws thrown at us in the province - but Bill 27 has to rank among the worst.
Our concerns about the substance of the law were profound - but we also had serious concerns about the process.
In particular, we were concerned about the role employers may have played in introducing, designing and drafting the legislation.
In an attempt to substantiate these concerns we filed a series of Freedom of Information requests with the Department of Health and Wellness, the Department of Human Resources and Employment and the Labour Relations Board.
The responses we received to these requests only heightened our concerns. The Health department and the Human Resources Department disclosed boxes of documents - most of which turned out to be innocuous. But from the LRB, we got nothing.
The Board refused to release any documents, saying they were all covered by exemptions within the FOIP act.
This blanket refusal, coupled with a few hints from documents from Health and Human Resources, raised a number of red flags for us. In particular, we started to suspect that we had stumbled onto something even bigger than what we had initially thought. We had been worried about the government cozying up with employers. But now we started to have grave concerns about the role that the Labour Relations Board in the whole process.
As we all know, the LRB is the quasi-judicial board that over-sees the administration and application of labour laws covering unionize workplaces in Alberta.
It is the referee, the traffic cop, the court of appeal in matters of labour relations.
It is also - and this is crucial - supposed to be independent and impartial. And by independent, we mean arms-length from government and free from influence by either the unions or the employers that appear before it.
However, at least when it came to Bill 27, the more we learned, the more it appeared that the Board's independence had been compromised. In particular, we were getting hints that the LRB was taking a direct role in drafting Bill 27.
We had no smoking gun. But, if it was true that the Board was working with government on Bill 27 this was very serious & because the LRB would have crossed an important line & they would have gone from interpreting the law, to writing it.
The LRB and Clint Dunford, who was Minister of Human Resources at the time, essentially said we were paranoid & that we were chasing shadows.
While Dunford admitted that there might have been some consultation on technical matters, the he said emphatically that the Bill was written by the politicians, not the LRB. In fact, in one newspaper article that we've included in your information package, he is quoted as saying the board had no role in drafting Bill 27.
But we weren't satisfied with those reassurances.
We had a hard time believing that the LRB had no documents related to Bill 27 or that all of them were covered by FOIP exemptions. So we did what was our right to do & we appealed the whole case to the information commissioner's office. And then, we waited.
And that's where things stood until late last week. On the evening of Wednesday, November 23, our lawyer received a letter and a few documents from the information commissioner's office - you'll find them in the package we've prepared for you.
There are only a few short documents here. But they prove what we have suspected all along & namely, that the independence of the LRB was compromised during the Bill 27 process.
What these documents show is not only that the LRB was playing an active role in drafting labour laws that they where only supposed to be policing and interpreting & the LRB was also actively working with employers to determine what the law should look like.
In the e-mail, dated March 11, 2003 and labelled number 50 by the information commissioner, Bruce Baugh (who is a government lawyer whose job it is to write legislation) says he has followed instructions from LRB Vice-chair Les Wallace.
And in the e-mail dated March 4, 2003 and labelled number 95 - Les Wallace himself provides an outline of what he says Bill 27 should look like. And he goes further. He says he has consulted with Damien Bailey, a senior lawyer from the firm McLellan and Ross - who act as counsel for a number of major health authorities. In particular, Wallace says he had discussions with Mr. Bailey about how the section of the regulation dealing with severance should be worded.
We've done some digging - and the section of Bill 27 they were talking about is the one that took away severance pay from a large group of Mental Health workers, who at the time were represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
From our perspective, this is nothing short of a scandal.
What's happened here is that, the LRB abandoned its independence. It's supposed to be an independent, third party arbiter - but it allowed itself to essentially become another branch of government.
And even worse, it took advice and direction from employers who had a vested interest in watering down contracts for health care workers.
This is a clear violation of the central role of the Labour Relations Board. And it is a clear conflict of interest.
All of us in this room understand why all of this is upsetting for the labour movement. But for members of press let me use a sports analogy.
Here in Edmonton, we've just watched our football team win the Grey Cup. How would Eskimo fans feel if there were ten seconds on the clock, Edmonton is third and goal - and then the referee goes to the Montreal bench to consult on a crucial penalty call.
That's what's happened to union and working people in this case. The referee is helping the other side to win.
The government passed one of the most sweeping - and we would argue damaging and unfair - pieces of labour legislation in Alberta history. And, instead of remaining impartial, the LRB has consulted with the other team.
In effect, the Labour Relations Board has put itself in the position of writing the law to reflect the interests of employers and government, and then they've gone on to sit in judgement of that same law.
Unions in this province appear before the Board every day.
But, given these revelations, how can we have any confidence that we will be treated fairly? How can we have any confidence that the Board will be fair and impartial? How can we have any confidence that the referee is not working for the other team?
These are deeply troubling questions. And honestly, until such a time that confidence can be restored in the true independence of the board, there will be a crisis in labour relations in this province.
With that in mind - and in an effort to restore the confidence in the LRB that is necessary to make the system work - the AFL has called for a public inquiry.
We don't want an internal investigation or a review that's conducted behind closed doors.
We want an independent body to look at these documents and the many others that are clearly out there, but haven't been released. We want someone who can call witnesses and subpoena evidence. In short, we want a thorough, public investigation. And we want changes to make sure something like this never happens again.
This is a stain on our labour relations system in Alberta. The good news is that the problem is now out in the open. Now all that's need is the political will to deal with it and restore confidence in the system.
Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, April 12, 2006
When it comes to politics in Alberta, there really have been only two issues that have dominated public attention over the last few months.
The first, of course, has been the Premier and his plans for retirement.
The second is the Third Way.
Like most other Albertans, I have strong feelings about Premier Klein's leadership.
But for our purposes today, I'll bite my lip about what I think of the Premier and focus instead on his policies for health care.
We've all seen or heard the news. For more than two years now, Premier Klein, has been telling us that the sky is falling.
He's been telling us we can no longer afford Medicare. And he's been telling us that privatization is at least part of the solution.
In many ways, this may be one of the most important political debates this province has ever had. From our perspective, the very future of our health care system is at stake.
With that in mind, over the next twenty minutes or so, I'd like to do four things.
First, I'll talk about what's actually being proposed when we talk about the third way.
Second, I'll talk about why we in the labour movement think at least some of those proposals will take us down a dangerous path.
Third, I'll talk about how those proposals, if implemented, might affect individuals, businesses and the economy.
And finally, I'll talk about what I think Albertans, from all walks of life, can and should do to protect Medicare.
So what is the Third Way?
For several years now, Premier Klein has been promising something big. He has even suggested that's he's willing to violate the Canada Health Act.
Until recently, it's just been talk. But, he has finally moved from rhetoric to action.
At the end of February, the Premier and his health minister, Iris Evans, released something called The Health Policy Framework.
It's not legislation - it's really just a skeleton of ideas. But the government has made it clear that this document will form the basis of new legislation that we could see as early as the middle of April.
It's the first time they've actually spelled out what the Third Way will involve. In a sense, they've finally put their cards on the table ... and that's a positive thing.
The other positive thing is that there are actually a number of policy directions contained in the Framework that almost everyone involved in the health care debate can agree on.
It's no secret that we in the labour movement are big defenders of Medicare. We helped create it and we still believe it's worth fighting for.
But even we can take issue with some of the proposals.
For example, we support the suggestion that there should be more teamwork between health professionals; we support the suggestion that we should experiment with replacing the fee-for-service approach to paying doctors with salaries; and we support the suggestion that there should be a greater emphasis on wellness and prevention.
If these kinds of reforms were the sum total of the Framework, I probably wouldn't be here today. And the government probably wouldn't be facing a rising tide of public opposition.
Unfortunately, the good in this document is far out weighed by the bad and the down-right dangerous.
Like many of the groups and individuals who have voiced opposition to the Third Way, there are four policy directions in the Framework that we find particularly alarming.
First, we're concerned about plans to remove the prohibitions on doctors working in both the public and private system.
Second, we're concerned about plans to allow patients to buy their way to the front of the line for certain services, like hip and knee replacements.
Third, we're concerned by the suggestion that some services may be de-listed or that new services may never be listed.
And fourth, we're particularly concerned about plans to open the door for private health insurance.
Despite repeated reassurances from the government, these are not mild reforms. This is not tinkering around the edges.
For the better part of a decade now, conservative governments like ours here in Alberta have been chipping away at our public health care system. We've seen contracting out of ancillary services; we've seen de-listing of things like vision care and physiotherapy; and, here in Alberta and in provinces like Quebec and B.C., we've seen strong moves towards increased for-profit delivery of services within the public system.
But let's be clear about one thing: if the Klein government goes ahead with the plans contained in the Framework document - in particular, if they allow people to buy their way to the front of the line for certain services and if you open the door for private health insurance - then they will be going one giant step beyond where anyone has gone before.
They will be going from "private delivery" to "private payment." They will be going from "access based on need" to "access based on wealth." They will be introducing a gold-plated tier of care for the few - and an inferior tier of care for everyone else.
And that doesn't just violate both the letter and the spirit of the Canada Health Act - it strikes at the very foundations of Medicare.
Before I dive into my specific critiques of the Framework document, I'd like to step back and take a closer look at the government's goals and assumptions ... because in the same way that buildings are constructed on foundations of concrete and steel, public policies are built on the foundation of goals and assumptions.
If the foundations of a building are weak, then the structure above is shaky. And if a government's goals and assumptions are faulty, then public policies that flow from them will be weak as well.
In many ways, the problem is not with the governments goals. Both Health Minister Evans and the Premier have said that their primary goals in these reforms are to control costs and reduce waiting lists.
Frankly, who can argue with that?
But while it may be hard to take issue with some of the government's over-arching goals, the same cannot be said for some of the assumptions that their plan is built on.
To put it bluntly, many of their core assumptions are flawed. And that's where the Third Way starts to come off the rails.
The first assumption that I'd like to take issue with is the assumption that public health care is not financially sustainable.
People in government have sometimes accused people like me and other leaders in the labour movement of fear-mongering on various issues. But on the issue of sustainability, it is the government that has been running around saying the sky is falling.
The truth about health care spending in Alberta is both more complex and less alarming than the government lets on.
When I met with Iris Evans last month she said breathlessly; "When Premier Klein took power, we were spending $5 billion on health care and now we're spending $10 billion."
That sounds very dramatic. But what this told me was not the health care spending is unsustainable - but rather than the minister doesn't have a really good grasp of basic economics.
The truth is that over the period of 13 years that the minister referred to, inflation in Alberta has increase by nearly 30 per cent and our provincial population has grown by more than 500,000.
We also have to remember that, in the mid-90s, the government imposed deep cuts on health services and staffing, creating a need for substantial "catch-up" spending.
When you look past the doom and gloom being pushed by certain politicians - what we find is that when you adjust for inflation and population growth, real per person spending on health care in Alberta has actually been going up by an average of about 2 percent each year over the past 13 years.
That's the crisis. That's what the government is using as justification to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
And it doesn't stop there. You can't say you really understand trends in health care spending until you break down that spending into its component parts and until you put it into the context of our provincial income.
When you do that, you see that spending on hospitals and doctors - which forms the core of Medicare - has remained almost entirely flat over the past 15 years.
You also see that the areas with the highest cost increases are actually the ones with the biggest for-profit components - most notably prescription drugs.
And then there is the question of what we can afford.
Thanks largely to a lucky accident of geology and geography, we're the richest province in the country - and getting richer.
As a percentage of our provincial GDP - which is our collective income - public spending on health care has remained stable at under 6 percent for the past twenty years.
The bottom line on health care spending is that the sky is not falling. Costs are rising, and that's a legitimate concern. But they are not as out of control as the Premier would have us believe. And they are certainly not bad enough to justify throwing the baby out with the bath water.
From our perspective, Medicare costs are still manageable - especially in a province as wealthy as Alberta.
That leads me to the second, and I would argue, even more dangerous assumption that almost all the government's Third Way proposals are built on. And that's the assumption that privatization is one of the best ways to achieve their goals on cost control and shortened waiting lists.
On the day the Framework document was released, I told reporters it read like a love-letter to private health care. That's because privatization was the strand that wound through the entire document and tied it together. It was the magic pill, the silver bullet.
But the assumption that greater privatization will lead to lower costs and reduced waiting list is just that - an assumption. And all the available research - and all the available evidence from the real world - suggests that it's a false assumption.
Take the proposal to allow doctors to work both sides of the street, for example.
The Framework suggests that by allowing doctors to take paying patients this will somehow reduce pressure on the public system.
It's a nice sounding theory - but experience shows it doesn't work in practice.
It doesn't work because there are only a limited number of doctors - and if they're working two days a week in their for-profit practice, that's two days a week they won't be available to work in the public system. The result is longer waits in the public system, not shorter. And this isn't hypothetical. These kinds of reforms have been tried in Britain, Australia and other countries. And, to put it bluntly, the experiments have failed. They haven't taken the pressure off their public systems.
On the contrary, experience shows that doctors consistently chose their higher paying private clients, and leave their public patients waiting in longer in public lines.
But allowing doctors to work both side of the street, is only one piece of the puzzle.
The government is also talking about allowing people to buy their way to the front of the line for certain service like hip and knee replacements. And you're talking about shrinking the umbrella of what's covered by Medicare by either de-listing some services or not listing new services.
When I look at all these proposals together, what I see is a deliberate attempt on the part of the Alberta government to create a market for private health care and private health insurance where there was no market before.
By shrinking the Medicare umbrella and allowing people to pay privately for things like joint replacement, they're creating the demand. And by freeing doctors to give faster access to those with thick wallets, they're creating the supply.
The big question is this: are these changes really in the best interests of Albertans? Will the creation of a market for private health care save us money? Will it improve access to care? Will it benefit our economy and serve our families better?
Our short answer to those questions is an emphatic "no" - private health care is not in our best interests.
As I've said, the biggest danger of the Third Way is that it is opening the door for and creating a market for private health insurance.
When I met with Iris Evans, I gave her a list of reasons why any move towards a greater reliance on private health insurance would not be in the public interest. And I'd like to share five of those reasons with you today.
First, an increased reliance on private health insurance would not be in the public interest because it costs more.
Our single-payer public system pools risk, thereby lowering cost. Our public health insurance system also has very low administrative costs - less than two percent of overall cost versus about 13 percent in private health care.
This explains why the American system - which relies on private insurance - is roughly twice as expensive on a per capita basis when compared to the Canadian public system.
Introducing a new tier of private insurance here in Alberta would undermine the advantages of having a single-payer system. It would fragment our system, reduce efficiencies and increase overall costs.
Second, an increased reliance on private health insurance would not be in the public interest because private health care has a much worse track record of cost containment than public health care.
Costs in the public system have been going up, but not nearly as much as costs in the for-profit health care sector.
In the U.S., private health insurance premiums have been rising at an average rate of more than 10 percent a year for each of the past seven years. The increases in premiums rates have been even higher for smaller employers.
In fact, the only way private insurers have been able to stop costs for completely spiralling out of control south of the border is by denying more people coverage, reducing the scope of coverage for those who are enrolled in plans and by charging ever-increasing deductibles and co-payments.
Third, an increased reliance on private health insurance would not be in the public interest because the companies most likely to step in and provide expanded private health insurance here in Alberta are the same American companies that have been found guilty of fraud on an almost mind-boggling scale.
Columbia/HCA, for example, was fined $745 million for fraud. Tenet Health Care was fined $683 million.
Even AON, the private insurance company that our provincial government contracted to help draft it Third Way framework, was fined $190 million.
Are these really the people we want to turn to as saviours? Are these the really people we want to invite into Alberta and entrust the care of our families to?
Fourth, an increased reliance on private health insurance would not be in the public interest because the expansion of private health insurance will hurt Alberta employers.
If the government shrinks the Medicare umbrella, workers (both union and non-union) will have no choice but to push for increased health benefits from their employers. And employers, especially in Alberta's current tight job market, may have no choice but to comply in order to attract and retain employees.
For public sector employers, this will mean less money left in their budgets to pay for the services they provide. And for private sector employers, it will mean reduced profits.
To understand just how costly the Third Way might be to employers consider these numbers: the average cost for health benefits in Canada is currently about $930 US per employee per year. In the States, the average cost is more than $10,000 US per year for employees with families.
To illustrate this point further, consider some of the numbers we've been able to gather from the construction industry. In the labour movement, we have many unions that operate on both sides of the border - and I had an opportunity to look at some of the contracts that had been negotiated by the Ironworkers in both Canada and the U.S. The numbers on health benefits were truly shocking. In Canada, construction companies in northern Alberta pay ironworkers $1.50 per hour for extend health benefits. In Saskatchewan they pay $1.60 per hour and in Manitoba it's $1.70.
But in the States, the amount they pay for health benefits is, in some cases, more nearly three quarters of what they pay for wages.
I'll give you four examples. In Phoenix, $7.15 construction employers pay ironworkers $7.15 per hour (Can) for health benefits. In San Francisco it's $7.38 per hour. In Minneapolis, it's $7.29 per hour and in Buffalo, NY it's $10.89 hour.
These costs have been literally eating American businesses alive.
The bottom line is that Medicare, as it is currently constituted, lowers costs for our businesses and gives them a huge economic advantage when competing with their American rivals. Creating a new tier of private insurance in Alberta will substantially reduce that advantage.
A move to a greater reliance on private health insurance will be particularly problematic for smaller businesses because large employers will more easily be able to afford extended health benefits. In the current tight job market that means that smaller employers will be at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining employees.
With all this is mind, I ask these questions: Will your business or organization be able to afford increased health benefits for your employees? Where will the money come from? And, in a province as wealthy as Alberta, do you really think it's justified to download public costs onto individuals and business?
Fifth, an increased reliance on private health insurance would not be in the public interest because less than 35 percent of Alberta workers currently have access to supplemental health benefits through work.
These are the people most likely to received increased benefits to cover the new tier of private service that the Third Way would create. Even if you add in the families of workers covered by private insurance, more than 50 percent of the Alberta population will likely be left without supplemental insurance.
Sixth, and finally, an increased reliance on private health insurance would not be in the public interest because there is only one payer for health services - the individual citizen.
By opening the door for more private insurance, the government won't really be reducing costs, they'll just be downloading them to businesses and individuals. I ask this question: shouldn't the government consider the broader social costs of health care rather than just the focusing on getting health care costs "off its books"?
At this point I'd like to one make one thing very clear. We in the labour movement do not want to bargain for increased private health insurance coverage. We don't want to add an extra burden on our employers. And we don't want to have to deal with another item on the bargaining table that could cause tension and possibly lead to strikes.
Our strong preference is to maintain a comprehensive and universal public system. But make no mistake: if the government starts shrinking the umbrella of Medicare coverage, we will have no choice but to act. We will have no choice but to attempt to fill the gap at the bargaining table.
With all sincerity, I hope it never comes to that. It won't be good for our members, it won't be good for business and it won't be good for Alberta.
I'm fiercely proud of the fact that the Canadian labour movement has always fought for health care benefits for all Canadians, not just our members. And that will continue to be our priority.
But if the government proceeds with the Third Way as currently proposed, they'll be opening a Pandora's Box.
As it stands right now, Alberta employers cover extended health benefits costs for about 582,000 individual Alberta workers. If you add a new tier of care, that's a good indication of how many people will be demanding more private coverage from their employers.
Of course, other than hips and knees, we don't know yet what services your government plans to let people buy faster access to. So we don't know exactly how many new benefits we might have to bargain for and how much benefit costs might increase. But for each item they add to the list, the cost to employers to cover the gap will go up.
One way to estimate the cost would be to look at monthly cost being projected by Accure Health, the private insurance firm associated with Jim Dinning. They're planning to offer a plan that will cover access to services like hip and knee replacements - at a cost of $70 per month.
So if all 582,000 Albertans who currently have extended health benefits are successful in getting that kind of coverage - that would translate into an extra cost to employers of about $41 million a month and more about $492 million a year. And that's just for the one procedure.
At the end of the day, I'm left with many troubling questions about the framework document. For example, why would the government want to download so such significant costs onto businesses and individuals?
Why would they want to undermine the economic advantage conferred by Medicare?
How, if their goal is to control costs, are they going to do that by opening the door to private insurance which we know from experience is much more expensive?
And if their other goal is to reduce waiting list, how are you going to accomplish that by let doctors work both sides of the street - a practice we know will probably lead to longer public waits, not shorter? I know that the buzzword for the government on this issue is "choice." They say that people should have the free to choose where to spend their money - even if they're spending it on health services.
In democratic western societies, we've always tried to protect individual choice - and that's a good thing.
But we've also said that reasonable limits often need to be placed on choice - especially when an individual's choice might have adverse effects on other individuals. That's why we say people don't have the right to choose to drive down the highway at 200 km/hour or the right to smack their neighbour in the head when they have an argument.
Given that private insurance drives up cost and has the potential to increase waiting lists for everyone, I would argue that it's reasonable to prohibit access to it. It's a clear example of the public good trumping the narrow interests of wealthy individuals.
The majority of Canadians and Albertans understand this. It's just too bad that whoever wrote the Framework document didn't share that insight.
In conclusion, I just like to say this: Private health care and the Third Way may be Ralph's hobby horse, but Albertans don't have to hop on board.
All the evidence shows that privatization is the wrong way to go. The evidence also shows that there are many potential fruitful avenues for reform within the public system.
The bad news is that our Premier, despite his impending retirement, seems determined to proceed. And there's nothing more dangerous than a politician with a bad idea who knows he's not going to face the voters again.
The good news is that while Ralph may be riding off into the sunset, the majority of his caucus members are not. THEY will have to face the voters.
That's, frankly, is why I'm here today. We in the labour movement are often on the opposite side of issue compared to business. But in this case, I think our interests coincide.
We don't want our members to lose health benefits - and you don't want to face increased costs.
Medicare gives individuals security and access to top notch health care that, in most cases, they would otherwise be unable to afford. But it also gives business an economic advantage especially when it comes to competing with their rivals south of the board.
Medicare is an important part of the Canadian Advantage and the Alberta Advantage. It's an Advantage we should not give up lightly.
That's why I want you to help us send a message to the government.
With the Premier's retirement announcement, the Third Way is teetering. But it needs one more big push to knock it over.
We in the labour movement will be doing our part. But I'm a realist.
Here in Alberta, the Premier and the health minister can afford to ignore angry letters from people like me. But they really stand up and take notice when they hear from people like you.
The Third Way may be on life support, but, more than anyone, you and your colleagues in the business community have the power to pull the plug.
So thank you for taking the initiative to establish this committee. I hope that, after gathering the information you need, you capitalize on the power you have to stop the Third Way before it becomes an albatross around the neck of the Alberta economy.
Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, Tuesday, April 3, 2007
Just under four years ago, the Alberta government introduced and passed a controversial law that radically altered labour relations in the health care sector.
Bill 27 allowed the government to tear up dozens of freely negotiated contracts covering the pay and working conditions of literally tens of thousands of health care workers.
It also forced unions into run-off votes, denying many workers the right to choose the union they actually preferred.
And, finally, it removed the legal right to strike from thousands of union members in areas like community health and mental health - without ever attempting to justify how the public interest would be threatened if a speech pathologist or a physiotherapist or community health nurse walked a picket line.
Our concerns about the substance of the law were profound. In many ways, it was the most blatantly anti-union piece of legislation introduced by an Alberta government in more than 20 years.
But in addition to being strongly opposed to what the new law said and what it meant for health care workers in this province, we were also deeply troubled by the process that led to its introduction.
In particular, we were concerned about the role that the Alberta Labour Relations Board played in drafting the law.
The Labour Relations Board is supposed to be the impartial referee in all labour relations matters. It is supposed to be free from influence from both employers and unions. And it is supposed to be independent from government.
However, in the case of Bill 27, it became clear to us that the boundaries between the board and the government had become dangerously blurred.
In the process, we felt that the Board's ability to act as an independent and impartial third party had been compromised.
Our concerns about the LRB's role in Bill 27 prompted us to file numerous freedom of information requests aimed at getting a clearer picture of what really happened behind the scenes between government and the Board.
It also prompted two major unions - the United Nurses of Alberta and the Communications, Energy Paperworkers - to launch legal action.
In September of 2004, Justice Watson of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench dismissed the unions' application for a judicial review of Bill 27 - not because their arguments lacked merit, but because so much of their case rested on things that had gone on behind closed doors. We simply did not have enough evidence.
However, in the months following the lower court decision, the evidence that had been missing started to pile up. As a result of freedom of information requests launched by the Federation of Labour, a picture of what happened in the run-up to Bill 27 began to emerge.
That picture featured a government, who was also the employer - either directly or through the Regional Health Authorities it created and appointed - using its legislative power to force concessions on health care workers that it couldn't win at the bargaining table. It featured a Labour Board helping the government draft a law which they knew would be used against health care workers. And it also featured Board officers sitting in judgment on cases involving the law they had just helped write.
The new evidence that we managed to gather - and the picture that evidence painted - caused unions across the province to ask a very fundamental question: how can we possibly have confidence appearing before a tribunal that had so clearly worked with a major employer to undermine the rights and interests of a large group of workers?
How could we possibly trust a referee who had been working with the other team?
Today was supposed to be our first day at the appeal court. We were eager to have our day in court and, as a result of the new evidence, we were confident about the outcome.
But instead of appearing before the appeal panel, we are here to respond to a major new development.
Earlier this morning the Labour Relations Board released a new protocol designed to more clearly define future interactions between the Board and the government.
The protocol begins by asserting that the only way for the Board to maintain the confidence of the parties appearing before it is to defend its independence from employers, unions and government.
It goes on to say that it is the responsibility of the government, not the Board, to develop policy and draft labour legislation.
It acknowledges that in some cases the government may approach the board for narrow technical advice on legislation or regulations. But it puts strict boundaries on what this kind of consultation would involve.
Most importantly, the protocol guarantees that all interactions between the board and government on either legislation or regulation will be fully and publicly disclosed.
No more veil of secrecy. No more backroom meetings. No more government behaving as if the Board is merely a branch of one of its departments. No more guessing about what's going on behind closed doors.
The protocol also guarantees that, in those cases where the board does give technical advice, the board officers involved will not be allowed to sit in judgment on the laws or regulations they gave advice on.
It also puts restrictions on the role of outside legal counsel - so they can't act for employers one day and as advisor to the board the next.
With this document, the Alberta Labour Relations Board has gone from having essentially no clear internal rules dealing with its independence from government to having some of the best rules in the country.
We may still have some of the worst labour laws in Canada - and we do. But this protocol makes it clear that the Board's only role will be to interpret those bad laws, not help write them.
The importance of this change cannot be overstated. In a province where working people can't count on the Legislature to consistently protect their rights in the workplace, at the very least they have to have confidence that the referee isn't working against them as well.
The Board now has the tools to say "no" when the government comes calling. They now have the tools to tell say to the government, "we won't help you with your dirty work."
We expect the Board to aggressively use these new tools when appropriate.
We also have expectations for government. Now that clear boundaries have been set, we expect the government to respect those boundaries and to not compromise the independence of the board.
As a result of this new protocol, which has been signed by the Board chair and all the vice-chairs and which will be signed by all future vice-chairs, we at the Alberta Federation of Labour, the United Nurses of Alberta, and the Communication Energy Paperworkers union have collectively decided to withdraw our court appeal.
We have pursued this case tenaciously for the past four years. We have invested significant amounts of time, money and resources. And we have persevered in the face of efforts to discourage us.
But our goal was never to put trophy heads on our wall. Our goal was to improve public policy. Our goal was to defend and guarantee the independence of the Labour Board from undue influence from government and employers. And our goal was to restore confidence among all those who have to appear be before the Board.
Looking at the protocol released by the Board today, we are satisfied that our major goals have been achieved. As a result, we see no reason to proceed with the court case.
From our perspective, this is a victory for working people because we can now have more confidence in the tribunal that hears our concerns and complaints.
It is a victory for the Labour Board itself because it more clearly defines and defends its independence from government.
And it is a victory for the broader public because it sets in place a new model for governance which we think can and should be adopted by other public boards and agencies.
If the Stelmach government is sincere in its efforts to promote transparency and accountability, we think this protocol is a very good place to start.
Building a better model of governance - one that the public can really have confidence in - was our goal from the start.
That's why, last year, we at the AFL commissioned an expert study on the situation related to Bill 27. That study was done by Professor Lorne Sossin, a highly respected authority on administrative law from the University of Toronto.
It's clear to us that the Board took Prof. Sossin's recommendations to heart.
Prof. Sossin talked about the importance of maintaining a clear distance between government and administrative tribunals such as the LRB. He talked about the importance of rules to guarantee that distance. And he talked about the importance of transparency and full public disclosure.
The board may not have used the exact words proposed by Professor Sossin, but the spirit of his recommendations has clearly been given life in the Board's protocol.
As a result of these new rules, the Board has gone a long way to reestablishing confidence among the public and stakeholders.
Obviously, we would have been happier if Bill 27 had never been introduced. But we can't re-write history. We can, however, make sure that we don't repeat it.
If these rules had been in place four years ago, the government would not have been able to enlist the Board in its campaign to gut health care labour laws. We may still have gotten those laws - but their introduction would not have triggered a crisis in confidence in the Labour Board.
With the Board's new protocol, we consider our case against the Board's conduct on Bill 27 closed.
We can now turn our attention where it really belongs - to the bad laws we have on the books and to the government that has passed those laws and still defends them.
Good morning. My name is Gil McGowan and I am the President of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
As most of you know, the AFL is Alberta's largest organization of labour unions. We represent 29 unions in the public and private sectors with a collective membership of more than 140,000 working Albertans.
As you probably also know, the AFL has played a central role in the fight to keep our health care system whole, and to keep it public.
With our partners in groups like Friends of Medicare, we fought against Bill 37 in the late 1990s.
In 2000, we fought against Bill 11- the provincial government's next attempt at expanding the role of private hospitals.
And in 2005 and 2006, we played a key role in the fight against the Third Way.
In all of these cases, the labour movement - through the AFL - marshalled its resources, mobilized its members and helped win the support of a clear majority of Albertans.
The ads, the town halls, the thousands of calls and letters to MLAs - we helped make those things happen. And we did it because we believe in our hearts, and in our guts, that public health care is worth fighting for.
All of these campaigns were instructive. They demonstrated that Albertans are passionately supportive of their public health care system. They demonstrated that Albertans are willing to pay for a top-notch public health services through their taxes. And they demonstrated that Albertans are deeply distrustful of, and opposed to, all efforts to weaken the system through privatization.
For our purposes this morning, I think it's particularly important that we look back on our province's experience with the so-called Third Way.
While we were preparing for this presentation, we dug up a document called "Removing Barriers" which was prepared by the government in 2005.
It was a summary of what the Third Way was all about - and it's worth reading if only to remind us that we've been here before.
According to the Removing Barriers document, the main goal of the Third Way was to pave the way for private insurance and for doctors to practice in both the public and private systems. Both of these changes were to be made by amending the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act and the Hospitals Act ... the same laws now under review by this committee.
Back in 2006, the people of Alberta heard this sales pitch and they made it clear that they weren't interested in buying.
They didn't want the government experimenting with private insurance. They didn't want the government to allow doctors to practice in both a public and private system or any other money-making scheme that would siphon resources from the public system to a for-profit one.
And the government was forced to back down.
So here we are, almost 4 years later.
The lesson from these earlier attempts at privatization should have been that the people of Alberta are not interested in more user fees, a parallel private system, or purchasing private insurance.
They are not interested in schemes that allow queue-jumping. And they're not fooled by loaded political buzzwords like "choice" and "flexibility."
What Albertans wanted then, and what they continue to want now, is a properly-funded public system that uses intelligent innovations within the public system to make sure people get the care they need, when they need it.
So what has the government learned from Bill 37, Bill 11 and the Third Way?
Well, they don't seem to understand what "no" means.
If anything, it appears the lesson the government has taken from all of these failed attempts at reform is not to accept that Albertans don't want more private health care, but rather that they should be just use new and better political "spins" to sell the idea.
That's why my organization is frankly suspicious of this committee and its work. Even some of your reassurances make us suspicious.
For example, this Committee has tried to reassure Albertans that we're not heading for a repeat of the Third Way by saying that whatever changes are made, the legislation that comes out the other end will be in compliance with the Canada Health Act.
With all due respect, this is perfect example of the political spin I was talking about - the kind of game-playing that makes Albertans more distrustful of the government's real intent, not less.
As all of you undoubtedly know, the Canada Health Act does not prevent private health services, private delivery, or private insurance.
The Canada Health Act does do is ensure that federal spending on health care supports publicly administered, comprehensive, universal, portable and accessible provincial health care insurance plans.
But the CHA is silent on whether there should or shouldn't be a parallel private system available to those who can afford to buy their way to the front of the line using US-style private insurance. That means that restricting the growth of a parallel for-profit health care system is the role of provincial Legislatures, not the federal government through the Canada Health Act.
And what do the laws in Alberta say today? The good news, from our perspective, is that they actually do the job of protecting the integrity of the public system.
For example, in sections 6 and 7 of the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act physicians are allowed to either opt in or opt out of the public system. There is no law against a physician setting up a wholly private practice. But the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act contains some powerful disincentives for physicians to go "private" - most notably the prohibition on opted-out doctors from receiving subsidies from the public system. In addition, section 26 of the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act outlaws contracts for private insurance for services that are covered in the public system, and private insurance is also not allowed to pay for all or part of fees charged by physicians who opt-out of the public system.
In other words, these are the laws that keep our system public. These laws, Alberta laws, are what keep the privatization monster at bay.
Unfortunately, they also happen to be the laws that this committee is proposing should be amalgamated, streamlined, and possibly relegated to regulation.
That's why we're worried.
We're worried because you're proposing to tinker with legislation governing opting-in, subsidization, and private insurance contained in the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act which are the only barrier to the creation of a private health care market.
We also worried because the legislative model you're proposing for the new "Alberta Health Act" is the model that the government used in the Drug Program Act.
As you know, the Drug Program Act is enabling legislation, which permits the Minister to establish a drug program for the purpose of providing funding for, or providing, drugs, services and approved drugs.
The Drug Program Act then permits the Minister to make regulations which will determine all of the details of the plan, including who is covered for what kind of drug coverage, amounts of co-payments and deductibles.
The Drug Program Act puts most of the power to decide the future of Albertans' drug coverage in the regulations, not the legislation or statute itself. The key difference between a statute and a regulation - and I know this is obvious, but it bears repeating - is that a statute is approved by the Legislative Assembly following debate before it becomes law, while a regulation is not.
If the Drug Program Act is accepted as the model for the new Health Care Act, Alberta's health-care legislation will contain no details of the core health-care framework.
All details will be left to the Minister's discretion and will not subject to debate in the Legislative Assembly. Further, the Minister can change the regulations at any time without notice and without debate.
This model offers no assurances that delivery of insured services using public funding will be organized in a manner that preserves delivery of health care on a non-profit model; or appropriate standards for health and health services in Alberta will be established and enforced.
To us, it seems like a tool designed to ram privatization down the throats of Albertans. It seems to be a strategy aimed at giving the government the power to fundamentally change our health care system under the cover of night, because they haven't been able to do their dirty work successfully in the full light of day.
All of this is not to say that there aren't constructive changes that could be made to our various pieces of health care legislation.
For example, we could expand the services covered under the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act to include more services, such as eye care.
We could move all Health-Insurance related legislation into one piece of legislation, consolidating the Hospitals Act and the Health Care Insurance Act, setting out more services that are insured under our public plan.
We could beef up accreditation and inspection of non-hospital surgical facilities such as the now-bankrupt Health Resources Centre, so that they are subject to the same rules as a public hospital.We could improve the standards in nursing and mental health care, which every reasonable person agrees would help to protect and better care for Alberta's most vulnerable citizens.
But there is no need to amalgamate all of the legislation, and there is even less need to structure our health care laws as enabling legislation. This committee appears to be breaking the things that don't need fixing while not even looking at the areas - like mental health and seniors' care - that are actually broken.
In conclusion, I want to be perfectly clear with this committee.
My purpose here this morning is to let you and the government know that we have a pretty clear idea of what you're up to.
In the language of that old Third Way document, it seems to us that your task is to remove barriers. And the barriers you seem intent on removing are the barriers that currently exist in legislation to private insurance and the introduction of a parallel, private health care system. Perhaps most disturbingly, you want to achieve these radical changes in a way that is profoundly undemocratic.
So please, tell the Minister, tell the cabinet, tell the Premier: if they go ahead with this attempt to structure our health laws against the wishes and best interests of Albertans, we in the labour movement will, once again, stand up for and with ordinary Albertans.
Tell them not to fix something if it's not broken.
And tell them to do what Albertans have been asking for from the beginning: and that is to improve the public system by focusing on reforms within the public system itself, not by constantly returning to discredited and dangerous privatization schemes.
Gil McGowan, President Alberta Federation of Labour Thursday, June 29, 2010 Calgary
Speaking Notes Gil McGowan, President
Our current provincial government wants Albertans to believe that these are tough times.
They want us to believe that the recession has left them with no choice but to trim budgets and cut funding ... even for vital services like education.
People like Premier Stelmach and Education Minister Dave Hancock put on their most sorrowful faces and said things like:
"We're sorry, but – really – there is no alternative."
But ordinary Albertans know in their hearts and their guts that there is something seriously wrong with this picture.
They see mega projects ramping up; they see glitzy office towers rising; they see the economy springing back to life.
And they wonder: Why?
Why, amidst such plenty, should we be laying off teachers and other education workers?
Why should we be under-funding our universities, colleges and technical schools?
Why should we be cutting services for the needy and the disabled?
Why should we be skimping on the services and programs that we need to build a stronger foundation for the future of our province and its citizens?
The truth is: There is no good reason.
The truth is: It is ordinary Albertans, with hearts and their guts, who are right, and it's our politicians, with their pious pronouncements, who are wrong.
Facts are sometimes inconvenient for politicians. They get in the way of the stories they tell voters and tell themselves.
But when we're talking about our schools and our hospitals ... about services for our kids, our grandparents and the most vulnerable members of our society ... then we can't afford to ignore the facts.
And what do the facts tell us?
Well, they tell us that Alberta is one of the most prosperous jurisdictions not only in Canada, but in the entire world.
They tell us that we still have no public debt ...
...that, on a person basis, our provincial economy is 75 percent larger than the Canadian average...
...that corporate profits in the province have increased by more than 400 percent over the past decade...
...that ten of billions of dollars in investment continue to pour into the oil sands each year.
These are NOT tough times.
We are a province that can think big and dream big. And we are certainly a province that can afford to provide adequate, stable long-term funding for core services like education.
There is another part of the government story that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
That's the part where they tell Albertans that we has a spending problem – that costs are out of control for public services.
But, once again, the facts tell a different story.
They tell us that, despite our wealth, Alberta's per person spending on public services is bang on the national average.
They tell us that overall spending on public services has barely kept up with our province's robust population growth.
And they tell us that, as a share of our provinces overall economic pie, spending on public services has actually gone down over the last 20 years – and not by just a little bit.
All of this begs the question: if we can afford our services (which, clearly, we can) and if spending is under control (which, clearly, it is) why, then, is the Stelmach government still recording deficits?
This is the real question that Albertans need to be asking themselves and their politicians: now; during the Tory leadership race and in the next election.
And the answer is clear: the reason our cupboard is bare is because our provincial government has decided to make it bare.
Successive governments here in Alberta have deliberately stopped collecting a reasonable and responsible share of our province's economic pie to fund the public services that Albertans need. Years and years of ill-conceived tax and royalty cuts have left us with an inadequate and unreliable revenue base.
Alberta is like a rich guy with a big hole in his pocket. He keeps shoving the money in, but his pockets are always empty at the end of the month. The answer is not for the rich guy to sell his house, or tell his kids they're going to live on Kraft dinner. The answer is to fix the hole.
That's why we've re-established the Join Together Alberta coalition ... and it's why we'll be circulating our declaration and hosting townhalls across the province.
We want to help Albertans understand that lay-offs and larger class sizes are not inevitable or unavoidable.
We want to remind our leaders and the public about the important role that public services play in building a more sustainable, equitable and prosperous future.
We want to demonstrate that what we have is a revenue problem, not a spending problem.
We want to pressure our politicians to stop preaching austerity when it is clearly unwarranted.
And we to call on the government to deal with the real problem: which is Alberta's broken system for revenue generation.
The good news is that thoughtful members of our provincial community are starting to wake up and speak out. Peter Lougheed, members of the premier's advisory panel on economic strategy, think tanks like the Parkland Institute and the Canada West Foundation: they're all calling for a discussion on revenue reform.
Politicians don't like to talk about taxes. But for the sake of our kids, our families and our future, this is a discussion we have to have. We're going to do our part to make sure that happens.
River Valley Room, Chateau Lacombe Edmonton March 26, 2011
2013 Health Spending Accounts ltr from FOIP Exec Council
The Alberta Federation of Labour filed requests for all documents on health spending accounts, dedicated taxes for health care services or other forms of alternative health care payment. Although these requests have uncovered that there are 26 pages dealing with health care taxes, the request was denied because of Alberta’s opaque and regressive Freedom of Information legislation.
2013 Treasury Answer to HC FOIP
The Alberta Federation of Labour filed requests for all documents on health spending accounts, dedicated taxes for health care services or other forms of alternative health care payment. Although these requests have uncovered that there are 26 pages dealing with health care taxes, the request was denied because of Alberta’s opaque and regressive Freedom of Information legislation.
The Finance and Treasury Board denied the request outright. In their rejection letter, the officials said the records “are being withheld in their entirety” because they are advice to officials.
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) has produced a new research study examining the economics of public education, public health care and other social programs. The book demonstrates that these public programs are a net advantage to Canada's economy, and they give Canada a competitive advantage over the U.S. and other nations with less well developed social programs.
"We abandon public health care and public education at our peril," says AFL President Les Steel. "They give us a clear competitive advantage over our neighbour to the south."
For example, in health care, the book reveals that employer health costs are two to three times higher in the U.S. than Canada, even when including taxation levels. "Public health care lowers the cost of doing business, and that works to Canada's advantage," says Steel.
The results of the study will be presented at a seminar being hosted by the AFL for interested members of the public. The author of the study will provide a presentation of the study findings and the book will be officially released at that time. Social agencies, education groups and health care organizations have been invited.
Thursday May 23 10:00 am to 11:00 am Salon "B", Howard Johnson Hotel, 10010 - 104 Street, Edmonton
The book, entitled "The Other Competitive Advantage: The Economic Case for Strong Social Programs", examines five areas: health care, education, retirement pensions, income security (EI, minimum wage and social assistance) and WCB. In each area it compares the economic costs and benefits of delivering these services publicly or privately.
Following the seminar, there will be a media availability. Copies of the book will be available at the event.
For more information contact:
Les Steel, President @ 780-483-3021(wk) 780-499-4135(cell) Jason Foster, Director of Policy Analysis @ 780-483-3021(wk)
EDMONTON-There are a number of developments today in the scandal involving the Labour Relations Board's involvement in Bill 27. First, this afternoon, the Privacy Commissioner took the Alberta Federation of Labour to court to try to force the return of documents given to the AFL last week.
Earlier this morning, senior union leaders from across Alberta met to strategize what the labour movement should do about the breach of trust that has occurred. Third, the AFL received a letter from LRB Chair Mark Asbell attempting to explain their involvement, and the AFL responded by demanding the release of the rest of the documents related to Bill 27.
The Privacy Commissioner served notice late yesterday that they will be applying for an injunction to force the return of documents released to the AFL last week. "The Commissioner is asking us to return the documents we received, and to provide a list of to whom we have sent them," says AFL President Gil McGowan.
"Our reply continues to be 'no', and we will defend our right in court to these documents. Two years ago we applied to receive these and hundreds of other documents related to Bill 27, but have been stonewalled," notes McGowan. "The public's interest to know about inappropriate actions at the LRB override any possible privacy issues the LRB may raise."
"This is not about privacy. It is about the LRB hiding the truth from Albertans."
This morning, about 45 senior union leaders met to discuss what the labour movement should do about the revelations. They decided on a series of actions to put pressure on the Board, including:Signing an Open Letter to Ralph Klein demanding the resignations of Mark Asbell, Les Wallace and Nancy Schlesinger, and for a full public inquiry into the scandal Selecting a case to pursue a "reasonable apprehension of bias" claim in the courts, to achieve a ruling whether the Board is now compromised Other actions to be announced next week
Also, late yesterday, the AFL received a letter from LRB Chair Mark Asbell, attempting to explain that their role was merely "technical". The AFL replied with their own letter today.
"We told Mr. Asbell that his explanation was inadequate, as the memos clearly indicate more than a technical involvement. They drafted the regulations," says McGowan. "We believe even so-called 'technical' involvement is a breach of the LRB's role."
"We have written Mr. Asbell demanding that he release the hundreds of documents in question in our FOIP request. It is the ONLY way for the full truth to be known."
"If the LRB is so certain of the propriety of their involvement, then why are they fighting so hard to keep the documents secret?" asks McGowan. "Release them and let Albertans see what the LRB's role was."
"This scandal has rocked the labour relations system in Alberta. Continuing to hide and whitewash will only make it worse. The time for full disclosure is upon us."
Note: All the relevant documents, including letters, are available here.
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For more information contact:
Gil McGowan, AFL President at 780.915-4599 (cell) or 780.483-3021 (wk)
EDMONTON - The fiscal plan that will be outlined in this afternoon's provincial government budget is based on two dangerous myths, says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization.
"Today's budget will be built around two dangerous ideas - namely the idea that flat taxes will promote fairness and the idea that private health care will save money and reduce waiting lists," says Audrey Cormack. "The problem is that flat taxes are inherently unfair and private hospitals represent a serious threat to the future of Medicare. As a result, this budget is a blueprint for disaster."
The provincial budget will be handed down today at 4 p.m. Cormack will be available to talk to reporters in the Legislature rotunda immediately following the provincial Treasurer's budget speech.
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, President: (780) 499-6530 (cell)
EDMONTON - Alberta Federation of Labour President Audrey Cormack will be taking the fight against the Klein government's Private Hospitals Bill to Ottawa on Tuesday, March 7th. Cormack has a meeting with federal Health Minister Alan Rock to discuss the implications of Bill 11, introduced last week.
The meeting will take place on Tuesday, March 7 at the Minister's Office in Tunney's Pasture Complex at 2:00 pm EST (12:00 Noon Alberta time). The meeting will take between 30 and 60 minutes.
Cormack is available for media comment following the meeting. Ms. Cormack can be reached by cellular phone at (780) 499-6530.
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, President @ (780) 499-6530 (cell) Jason Foster, AFL @ (780) 483-3021