With a proverbial snap of the fingers, Premier Jason Kenney eliminated one per cent of Alberta’s entire workforce.
In the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis, the government announced a temporary layoff of 26,000 workers – educational assistants, clerical workers, substitute teachers, bus drivers and custodians – as if more unemployment will make our collective predicament any better.
And under this social isolation regime, there’s little risk of provoking labour unrest, so the government has more leeway than normal to act as they wish without regard for the consequences, insofar as they do so under the guise of public health and safety.
When a government makes a Friday announcement, you know they’re trying to ensure the population forgets the news by the time Monday rolls around.
So when the announcement occurs on a Saturday (as this one did), completely blindsiding stakeholders with a news release, you know we’re in deep trouble.
What must be particularly frustrating for the impacted workers is that many of their unions agreed to zero pay increases for four years precisely to avoid layoffs.
That was the approach of CUPE Local 829, which represents Medicine Hat Public School Division educational assistants, custodians and clerical workers, as well as Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education custodians, who agreed to a wage freeze last year for the explicit purposes of job security.
Well, goodbye to all that.
Yes, these are unprecedented times, but the government is using this crisis as an opportunity to accelerate its assault on the public sector at a time when it’s most needed.
The Ministry of Education says it will save $128 million that can be redirected to its COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
The government is pitting health care and education workers against each other, foreshadowing what’s to come after the crisis abates and public sector workers must compete for a piece of a pie that’s increasingly being consumed by corporations.
In any event, the ministry is presenting a false choice. We can and ought to fund front line healthcare and education workers, at this time and always. They’re consistently the top two budget items for a reason.
Instead, education workers are being told to get lost and go to the feds, who are already managing an unprecedented surge in private sector unemployment.
If there are delays in receiving money due to this unnecessary addition to the unemployment queue, the UCP can do what they do best (besides convening panels with pre-determined outcomes) – blame the federal government.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange attempted to place these layoffs in the context of public safety.
“Our number one priority continues to be the safety of all Albertans, including our students and teachers. That’s why we are temporarily adjusting payments to school authorities to further support Alberta’s #COVID19AB response,” wrote LaGrange.
How is anyone’s health or safety enhanced by laying off educational assistants, who have been providing special assistance to students with complex needs? Or bus drivers who were delivering lunches to students enrolled in the nutrition program?
Ministry spokesperson Colin Aitchison said funding will return to “regular levels” once in-person classes resume.
But what are regular levels?
We know this government has been particularly slippery when it comes to numbers for education funding. There’s still $136 million missing from the 2019-2020 budget that the ministry refuses to acknowledge.
And what will “regular levels” look like when the government gets around to passing its Choice in Education Act and the money starts flowing faster from public to private schools?
The billions of dollars handed out to corporations at the outset of Kenney’s mandate would sure come in handy right now.
This editorial originated in the Medicine Hat News