By Mimi Williams, Communications Staff
After a year like no other, most of us entered 2021 with fresh hopes for something better. COVID-19 had a different idea. We sat down with AUPE President Guy Smith to reflect on back-to-back years of challenges.
Q: This year has brought a lot of pain and uncertainty, with many members suffering loss at work and in their personal lives. Has this changed the way you approach members?
A: I’ve always had compassion for our members, but I no longer assume that anyone’s doing okay. I try to emphasize this point with members and help them realize that everyone around them is likely suffering to some degree. We all just need to try to be a little more compassionate and gentler with each other. We have to assume the person we’re dealing with is going through a rough time. Because these days, they probably are.
Q: AUPE was quite aggressive in its efforts to mobilize and organize its membership prior to the pandemic. Besides the obvious inability to hold mass demonstrations and meetings, what else changed?
A: The union, a lot like many of our members, has moved into a bit of a survival mode. At the same time we are trying to find new and innovative ways to stay connected and engaged with members. This has been a major challenge, because the actions and strategies we like doing, that we’re good at, we haven’t been able to do. It’s okay to be in survival mode — to hold your ground. That’s true on a personal level, as well as on an organizational level. If you don’t survive, you won’t have the energy to rise up stronger on the other side.
"We all just need to try to be a little more compassionate and gentler with each other. We have to assume the person we’re dealing with is going through a rough time. Because these days, they probably are."
Q: Jason Kenney is the sixth person to occupy the premier’s office since you’ve been president of AUPE. What’s different about this government?
A: He’s the only premier who’s shown no interest in meeting with labour leaders to determine what, if any, common ground we might share, or at the very least, to lay the ground rules for engagement. Kenney considered us the enemy that needed to be defeated, not engaged with. For all his admiration of Churchill, he and his cabinet have shown us during the pandemic that they have no sense of that wartime pulling together for the common good. Instead of putting aside differences, he took the opportunity to try and beat us down.
Even though our members have poured their hearts and minds into protecting and supporting their fellow Albertans, the Kenney government has laid off workers, tried to force concessions and rollbacks, and overall shown disrespect for public services and those who provide them.
Q: AUPE has quite visibly stepped up its organizing efforts over the past year, with hundreds of members trained for Direct Action and Picket Captain training. Was this a bit of a shot across the bow to employers?
A: Our members across all sectors made it very clear that they were not prepared to accept the concessions employers were demanding, so while we continued to seek to resolve these demands at the bargaining tables, we were preparing members for the possibility of a strike or lockout. It’s hard to imagine that the government, and other employers, wouldn’t expect us to roll up our sleeves and prepare our members for picket lines, but I think our level of preparation has surprised them. Still, this government (and the employers they are directing) is ideologically driven and probably believed it could just bully its way to concessions without fully understanding who they were up against. So, “a shot across the bow”? Probably more like a dose of hard reality for employers who try to force rollbacks on their workers.
Q: We saw the government back off on two of its privatization and contracting-out goals this past year: residential supports for persons with developmental disabilities and Land Titles, Corporate and Personal Property Registries. What does this mean for future threats?
A: We are confronted with a government fueled by the misguided ideology of privatization and contracting-out. And yes, we have been successful in fighting back against this ideology in a few key areas, such as the ones you mention. Quite honestly, those successes are a result of the affected workers getting directly involved in the plans and strategies to save their jobs.
We have lost some battles too, such as the remaining laundry services (mostly in more rural areas) in health care. So, we cannot for one moment let our guard down. There are many more health-care support jobs threatened by contracting-out as part of the 11,000 job cuts announced in October 2020 by former Health Minister Shandro and AHS CEO Dr. Yiu. We all need to be involved in standing up to protect those jobs and others through the ongoing collective bargaining processes.
Q: We welcomed many new members in continuing care over the past year and successfully concluded bargaining first collective agreements for many of them. Do you have any message for the newest additions to the AUPE family?
A: Welcome to our family! And thank you for adding to our strength and diversity and being part of our struggles for justice and equality. It’s always exciting when non-unionized workers take on the onerous, and sometimes risky, task of organizing to join a union. Obviously, it’s that much more exciting when their union of choice is AUPE. The private continuing-care sector has been a huge area of growth for AUPE over many years, and I’m glad to see that we are securing first-time collective agreements for our newest members. Hopefully, this will inspire more unionization in this important area of services to Albertans.
Q: What do you see in the medium- and long-term future for AUPE and its members?
A: While we felt like we were just getting by, responding from crisis to crisis — because we were — the hard work of the union carried on. Collective bargaining agreements were negotiated; grievances and arbitrations moved along. Members were represented through the WCB and LTD processes; our OHS staff and worksite reps continued their important work. And, although in 2020 we had to cancel chapter, local and area council AGMs and our annual convention, we committed in 2021 to ensuring that our internal democracy would remain healthy and protected by making all AGMs and our convention virtual. It has been, and continues to be, a huge and challenging undertaking.
Despite all the upheavals, I hope that our convention in December will establish a new foundation for what we need to focus on in the future. While there’s a certain amount of rebuilding and retooling that needs to occur as we climb out of the isolation and dislocation of COVID-19, we must continue to fight hard against rollbacks and concessions, and continue to stand up for jobs and public services.
Overall, if these past two tumultuous years have shown me anything, it’s that this union as an organization is just as strong and resilient as its members, and I’m tremendously proud of that.