Building Power: Strategy for Fighting Kenney

The situation is dire in Alberta. Kenney’s UCP government has implemented a range of ghoulish measures in a very short time. Among them:

  • The sacking of the independent election commissioner, in the middle of an investigation into the UCP’s leadership race which has already warranted the levying of $200,000 in fines.
  • A multi-billion dollar pension fund grab, transferring $79 billion in assets from teachers and a range of public servants to AIMCo’s control, a crown corporation with a board appointed by Kenney’s cabinet. Government spokespeople have suggested the funds could be used to prop up Alberta’s fossil fuel industry.
  • A publicly-funded war room demonizing opposition to fossil fuel project expansion.
  • A witch-hunt targeting “anti-Alberta energy campaigns,” whose commissioner handed over a $905,000 sole-sourced contract to Dentons law firm, where his son is employed. The current Minister of Justice, Doug Schweitzer, was formerly a partner at Dentons.
  • 300 teachers laid off at the Calgary Board of Education. Kenney’s government is eliminating requirements for schools to report class sizes. The Minister of Education has ordered an audit of the Calgary Board of Education. The UCP will be debating the introduction of an education voucher system at its convention on November 29th.
  • Short-notice elimination of huge grants and the reduction of time-frames to protest cancellations. Kenney’s government can terminate grant agreements without clause with 90 days’ notice. This could cancel provincial funding to Calgary’s Green Line LRT and Edmonton’s Valley Line West LRT.
  • Layoffs of 275 staff at the University of Calgary, and 125 layoffs at Alberta Innovates.
  • Layoffs of at least 750 Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses at Alberta Health Services.

These changes occur in rapid-fire sequence, flooding the news media and making it impossible for the public and civil society groups to respond to these changes properly on an individual basis. The constant barrage is meant to overwhelm and demoralize any that might oppose Kenney’s government.

All of these changes are occurring in the context of Kenney’s austerity regime, which is seeking public-sector wage rollbacks of two per cent to up to five per cent, while making dramatic cuts to municipalities and post-secondary institutions. The government will try to minimize these cuts, but don’t be fooled: Kenney’s budget is a functional 20% cut when accounting for inflation and population growth.

Jason Kenney’s goal isn’t to grow an economy for everyone, but instead to make it easier for those at the very top —who profit from Alberta’s economy as it is— to continue to do so. Wages in the public sector set a standard, very generally, for wages throughout the labour market. Rolling back public-sector wages is a way of reducing wage expectations across the province. Lowering wages is also an easy way to increase profits. Jason Kenney’s goal is to reduce the wages of working Albertans while also cutting their healthcare and education.

What can be done?

Alberta is governed by a parliamentary system based on liberal-democratic principles. This means that a number of state institutions claim to keep the government of the day in check. This includes the separation of powers in branches of government, inalienable rights, the rule of law, and checks and balances to prevent abuses of power. When the checks and balances begin get eroded or diminished — like when an independent Election Commissioner gets sacked while investigating the governing political party — individuals heavily invested in this model of political rule and its associated model of change can get very alarmed.

Rachel Notley, leader of Alberta’s New Democrats and leader of the Official Opposition, called Jason Kenney’s sacking of the Election Commissioner “an historic abuse of power,” “the most disgusting abuse of power in the history of Alberta,” and called Kenney “the most corrupt and anti-democratic premier in the history of the country.”

All of this might be true, but it leaves the people of Alberta with a kind of dead-end. Those in power are changing and bending and ignoring the rules, making the lives of people worse, and there’s seemingly nothing we can do to stop them. The solution Rachel Notley proposes to address this historic abuse of power is laughable: how is joining the NDP and voting for them in three-and-a-half years going to accomplish anything for those suffering from Kenney’s cuts now? The NDP were not particularly aggressive in reversing 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule, and they publicly bragged about delivering zero wage increases to the public sector while in power.

If our theory of power and change is invested entirely in the liberal-democratic parliamentary system, the alarming political rhetoric is paired with a sense of hopelessness. We are doomed to suffer Kenney’s agenda until an election happens years from now?

All of this ignores a very important force: the power of the working people of Alberta.

Where does power lie?

The only thing that can change the way things are heading in Alberta is countervailing power: something that can withstand and even rival the power that Jason Kenney enjoys as Premier. The working people of Alberta absolutely have the capacity to be this force.

This means organizing, and collectively withdrawing our labour through organizing strikes.

When workers withdraw their labour and stop working, money doesn’t get made. This frightens profit-seeking companies, leading them to quickly concede to demands. When workers withdraw their labour and stop working in the public sector— in health and education, for example— it presents the government of the day with a massive public crisis.

Strikes are effective. Success is not guaranteed, and they take a lot of work and a lot of courage. However, when they do work, they bring results. In the United States over the last year, public school teachers, hotel workers, and nurses have gone on strike. Teachers in Chicago, after striking for 11 days in October, secured a 16 per cent pay raise over five years, and a 40 per cent raise for teaching assistants and clerks. The new contract increases per-student funding, reduces class sizes, and puts a social worker and a nurse in every school.

An important distinction must be made between a legal strike position, and an illegal one.

A legal strike position occurs when a union is involved in collective bargaining, a variety of steps including mediation and enhanced mediation have occurred, and the union membership has voted for a strike vote resulting in fifty per cent plus one in favour. After these steps, a legal strike is permitted, but only in certain ways. If the workplace is part of the public sector, an essential services agreement must be in place for a strike to proceed. Essential services agreements typically take a very long time to negotiate, and significantly weaken the power of a strike by legally requiring large proportions of the bargaining unit to stay in during a strike.

It has been the practice of successive governments to make it very difficult for unions to achieve a legal strike position, and even more difficult for unions to achieve a legal strike position with the timing, momentum, and energy needed to successfully win a strike. Legal strike positions are increasingly theoretical rather than achievable.

This means that the only option available for workers to exercise their collective power to strike is to do so illegally— what is known as a wildcat strike. Teachers and school staff in West Virginia (facing off a Republican Governor, Republican Senate, and Republican House), unhappy with the contract their union leaders had signed, continued their wildcat strike for an additional four days, winning a 5% pay increase and increased healthcare coverage.

In 2012, members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees working in the public healthcare system’s general support services democratically rejected an insulting offer from a mediator. At the bargaining table, the government said they were going to table a worse offer. A day of rallies was planned at AUPE worksites, but at 7:00 a.m. workers at the Royal Alex began a wildcat strike. The strike rapidly spread throughout the province, and was concluded within the day. A union-approved arbitrator was appointed, who gave raises to workers in general support services. Workers throughout the public healthcare system were then able to use the gains secured by general support services as a baseline to secure their own wage increases. A wildcat strike for wage increases in one area had an upward lift on wages across the public sector, and on wages in private and not-for-profit care.

Secondary strikes, or sympathy strikes, are another largely non-legal form of labour action. Typically, this means workers that are not in a legal strike position engage in a strike to support workers elsewhere, or respect the pickets of other unions. The further a strike spreads, the more the scope of workers’ demands can grow.

How do we get there?

Strikes — particularly illegal ones, where workers can face punitive fines and workplace discipline — are difficult to organize, and require a lot of work to pull off.

The default tactics of public and civil society groups tend towards tactics like rallies and letter writing campaigns. These are not bad tactics, but they also don’t allow us to wield any power. Rallies in other places are called demonstrations (Britain) and manifestations (France) because they are not simply big meetings: they are a public display of power and potential. Assembling a group of people at a certain place and a certain time is a show of force. If this many people can get together in one place for one purpose, imagine what they could do should they escalate their organizing into communities and workplaces… ?

Rallies and letter-writing campaigns are demonstrations of power, but they are not power. If they are not connected to a larger strategy of action and disruption, they are fundamentally unable to make change. If Jason Kenney will not be moved by a display of power, we need to escalate to using this power.

We can use these smaller actions as an initial step on the ladder of engagement. The first action people take should have a low barrier to entry. It should not be time consuming, or risky, or require lots of time or travel. These first actions are unlikely to succeed single-handedly, but they get people used to the idea of being political actors with agency who intervene and make demands that differ from what is on offer. It is easier to persuade someone to come to a rally who has already called their MLA, and it is easier to convince someone to phone bank who has already worn a button or picked up a bumper sticker.

Creating a ladder of engagement also allows people to work through the limitations of certain political strategies. When a rally fails to produce the desired results, our task as organizers is to strategize how to escalate in ways that allow us to continue operating as a majority in a community or a worksite. This can look like a number of things: disrupting the businesses of UCP fundraisers, or walkouts, or disrupting UCP events, or occupying post-secondary institutions, to name a few.

Many of the tactics listed here can be stressful and demanding of participants. People need to be built up through gradual escalation. It takes courage to ask a pointed question, or walk out of work, or picket, or confront a politician in public, or even to cause a scene. The courage and capacity to engage in these actions doesn’t happen spontaneously. It has to be nurtured and practiced.

The most important thing an organizer can do is develop the skills of asking people to do things and then following up with them. This means that you will be asking people to do things that you can do better and faster by yourself. At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive— why get others to do what you could do faster and more easily? The simple fact is that we need to encourage people to build up their own capacities, so that when we need them to organize others, they have the knowledge and experience to do so.

Why can’t we just do everything?

We have limited time and energy. Trade unions and civil society groups have limited resources. Many people work two jobs, or work short, or spend significant amounts of time caring for friends and family. Lots of people want to do things, but they don’t know how or where to start.

If we want to take resisting this government and building power seriously, we should be honest about the fact that every strategy is not worth pursuing. Some strategies create a false sense of success, or are demoralizing, or waste significant amounts of time and resources.

How do we keep organizing when things are so bad?

Albertans throughout the province are relying on you— on us. There is a massive task of organizing ahead. It is certainly tempting to throw our hands up and declare that nothing is ever going to change. But it is irresponsible to act like that when others are relying on us to model ways and methods of fighting back.

If you are reading this piece, there are people in this province that are relying on you to both organize and to be organized. We are relying on you not only to canvass and educate and agitate, but to be organized — to do things that are scary or uncomfortable because others have asked you to do it, to do things that are boring and hard because others are depending on you.

It is not necessary to have perfect faith or expert politics or an iron will to do this. What is necessary is merely to work with others, and to allow yourself to be changed and transformed by the experience of collective struggle.

Our task is to build power. No one else will.

November 29, 2019