Lise Comeau got involved with CUPE almost as soon as she started working at Keyano College in Fort McMurray in 2003 because she wanted the extra challenge. Now, in 2017, Comeau is the recently-elected president of Local 2157 – and is attending her very first CUPE convention.
Her first thoughts? “I’m impressed with how fired up I am!” she says. “Convention is lighting a fire in me that I didn’t know was there.”
Fort McMurray is facing a lot of challenges right now, but Comeau looks at her first convention experience as something to bring home and use to inspire members.
Comeau says she was inspired to get involved with her union because she saw the positive effects they had in her community. “Unions don’t just impact unionized workforces – they impact the whole workforce.” When Comeau worked in the private sector, she noticed how her company set its standards to match the local unionized workforces in order to retain talent.
To Comeau, being engaged in her union means getting involved in the community, making connections outside her own workplace, and spearheading fights for fairness for workers and the whole community. Unions serve a crucial role for their members, but it doesn’t stop there.
“Unions are for all workers,” she says. “We’re all in this together.”
Skyrocketing tuition, spiralling student debt, underpaid and precarious academic workers are characteristics of Alberta’s post secondary education system – but things are improving under the current NDP government.
AFL Director of Policy Development Susan Cake spoke to CUPE Alberta delegates about the state of Alberta’s post secondary education system, saying that recent investments in post secondary education are making a difference, but that there is ‘much, much more to do.’
Cake said previous Conservative governments moved debt from government to students and their families by letting tuition and other fees go up by as much as 50% annually.
After the Notley government was elected, the NDP introduced a tuition freeze and increased funding to universities, colleges and trade schools.
“Now students can anticipate what their education will cost,” said Cake.
Cake said that while tuition has increased, and senior administrative salaries have been grossly inflated, the people doing the actual instruction of students have become increasingly marginal.
According to Cake, 50% of students are taught by contract and sessional faculty, and increasingly – sessionals cannot move to tenure track positions. Tenured staff can cost between $65-$150,000 while contractors make as little as $28,000 per year.
“When a university is selling it’s unspoken promise, that education leads to a better life, we’re not even seeing it among it’s own academic staff,” said Cake.
Calling it ‘staggering’ that Alberta’s workplace laws and regulations have not been reviewed in over 30 years, Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray promised changes to the Labour Code, Employment Standards, and the Workers’ Compensation Board.
“We are looking to make life better for Albertans is through a review of our province’s workplace legislation, legislation that touches the lives of almost every Albertan,” said Gray.
“This makes it imperative that our legislation is fair, up to date, and in-line with other jurisdictions in Canada,” said Gray. “Currently, this simply isn’t the case.”
Gray said Alberta had followed behind other provinces in maternity and parental leave, job protection for sick workers, and compassionate care leave as reasons labour laws need to be updated.
“Albertan’s deserve modern, family-friendly workplaces where you are treated fairly.”
Gray said fair labour laws benefit all Albertans, including employers.
“Safe, productive workers who have the confidence of knowing they are protected by sensible workplace legislation get great results for employers, and foster strong, thriving families and communities.”
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National Secretary Treasurer Charles Fleury told delegates to the CUPE Alberta convention that CUPE needs to fight hard against the rise of precarious work – fortunately, the country’s largest union has the resources to do so.
“Everywhere I go, members tell me, ‘they are cutting our services, privatizing our work, and turning good jobs into part time and casual positions,” said Fleury.
“Here is my message for you today, CUPE has the resources to fight back against all these attacks.”
Saying CUPE members in almost every region face service cuts and concessions, Fleury said it was up to the union to lead the resistance.
In addition to new strategies and policies around bargaining, Fleury said CUPE is ramping up the resources it’s putting into the field, including renewing 11 new temporary staff representatives, a new equality representative, and significant improvements to the strike and defence funds.
“Strike pay will start sooner, the defense fund has more resources, we will put the resources forward we need to protect workers,” said Fleury.
CUPE National President Mark Hancock used his address to delegates to outline the need for a new approach to collective bargaining, as well as changes to organizing strategies and plans to make the National Executive Board more reflective of CUPE’s membership.
According to Hancock, CUPE adopted a refreshed collective bargaining policy in December to fight against concessions and two tier bargaining.
“This plan is a blueprint for solidarity, to ensure CUPE locals and members have the support they need to stand together during bargaining. So we can always bargain forward, not backwards,” said Hancock.
“We’re going to give locals the tools they need to fight back against concessions and two-tier proposals,” said Hancock. “Because if a collective agreement isn’t good enough for us, if we wouldn’t accept it today, why would we pass it on to the next generation?”
Delegates to CUPE’s National Convention in the fall will debate a national organizing strategy and a proposal for four new diversity seats on the National Executive Board.
“I want to make my position clear, I believe that our governing body should be a fair representation of our membership.”
Hancock told delegates that under the NDP, Alberta’s political climate is the envy of labour activists across the country.
“When I look at what’s happening across the country, it’s so refreshing to see a government that’s making things better for working people,” said Hancock. “Things like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, freezing post-secondary tuition, and most recently cutting school fees for parents – saving the average family around 14 hundred dollars a year. That’s good for kids, good for parents, and good for teachers.”
Listing the commitments and resolutions passed at the 2016 convention, Roberts outlined progress made on behalf of Alberta’s working people.
“Looking back at last year’s convention – you passed a policy paper that was remarkably far sighted about how Alberta needed to weather the low price of oil,” said Roberts. “You told us to lobby the Alberta government to invest in public infrastructure. We did, and the NDP listened.”
“You told us to fight poverty by advocating for a higher minimum wage, and school lunch programs. We took those concerns to the NDP and they are acting on them.”
Roberts praised delegates for calling at last year’s convention for greener jobs, diversification of the economy, better pension protection for workers, continued fights against privatization, and stronger action to fight poverty.
“You told us to act, and we acted.”
Roberts was particularly pleased that efforts by CUPE Alberta and Friends of Medicare to stop the sale of plasma for commercial use. The Alberta government this week introduced legislation banning that practice.”
“We are making a difference.”
Roberts said 2017 would be a year of challenges for CUPE, starting with local elections in the fall.
“We know what it’s like working with friendly governments, and we know what it’s like working with hostile ones. I’ve done both, and let me tell you – I prefer the friendly ones every single time,” said Roberts.
“Friendly governments don’t just happen. We need to put our money, our brain power, our training, our energy and our votes behind the candidates that share our values.”