AFL President Gil McGowan calls on delegates at Convention 2017 to work together to make the most of our moment.


 You can watch the video of the speech here.

2017 AFL Convention

President’s Address


Low oil prices.

Government deficits.

Higher unemployment.

These are the kind of things we see in the headlines and hear on the news every day.

They cause anxiety. They cause apprehension.

But, this morning, despite the anxiety…and despite the apprehension, I’m going to make a bold assertion.

It’s the assertion we’ve literally put up in lights behind me as the theme of this convention…and it’s this:

This is our moment; this is our time!

Now, some people might say “whoa Gil… this isn’t our moment; it’s the NDP’s moment… and all that gloomy stuff; that’s the Premier’s problem, not ours.”

But, that’s not accurate.

This is our moment and our time, as workers and unions, because for the first time since at least the 1920s, we have a government here in Alberta that actually sees us, hears us and respects us.

Before the NDP, we had a succession of conservative governments that didn’t see working people – (and certainly not unions) – as part of their constituency… as part of the group they had to care about.

So, when we came to those conservative governments with concerns about labour laws, and health and safety, or ideas about childcare, long-term care or pharmacare… they scoffed at us. They didn’t care, because, in their eyes, whether they admitted it publicly or not, we didn’t matter.

In fact, they often felt they could score points with the actual members of their constituency -- most notably the anti-union business crowd -- by pushing us around and treating us with disrespect.

So, this is our moment and this is our time because, for the first time in a very long time, we matter to the people in charge.

This is also our time and our moment because we helped create it.

People didn’t just wake up on May 5th, 2015 and magically or spontaneously say “I’m going to vote NDP.”

They did it, in part, because they were fed up with Conservative arrogance, entitlement and the PC’s knee-jerk right-wing policies.

But they also did it because Alberta civil society – led by the labour movement in general, and the unions affiliated with the AFL in particular – we had spent a decade or more actively and effectively critiquing right-wing policies and promoting progressive alternatives.

Through all of the campaigns that we waged – on health care, revenue reform, pensions –  we planted seeds of doubt about the right-wing approach… and seeds of hope and curiosity about progressive alternatives. 

And in the process, we (ever so slowly) changed the political landscape in this province… and, in so doing, we re-defined what was possible. 

To put it another way … our fights for public health care; our fights for fair wages and fair pensions; our fights against cuts and austerity; our fights for fair taxation and fair royalties … they didn’t always result in big, immediate victories … but they put ideas and perspectives on the table that hadn’t previously been there. They got people thinking and questioning … and in the process, they helped create the conditions that allowed a progressive government to be elected in traditionally conservative Alberta.

But we didn’t stop there. We didn’t just create the conditions. We also rolled up ourselves and made change happen during the election itself.

Thanks to the political action strategy that we developed at passed at previous AFL conventions, we had the plans and the wherewithal to make a very big difference on the ground.

The AFL and the majority of unions in this room, didn’t just talk the talk, we walked the walk and mobilized an unprecedented number of our members in more than 45 ridings in the provincial election.

Together, through years of progressive activism, we helped create the wave. And, together, through our commitment to political action, we helped ride the wave to victory.

So, this is our time and our moment because we helped create it.

It’s also our time and our moment because all the people who formed this surprising, refreshing new government; they’re not strangers … they’re not just politicians and cabinet ministers.

Instead, they’re friends, colleagues…and many of them are brothers and sisters in our labour movement.

You know, much has been said and written about the fact that half of the NDP caucus and more than half of the cabinet are women.

This is, indeed, ground-breaking… and something that Albertans should be very proud of.

It’s also something we in the Alberta movement know something about.

For the past 20 plus years, the direction of our movement has been profoundly influenced by powerful female leaders; people like Heather Smith and Elisabeth Ballermann.

So, it’s nice that our provincial government is finally catching up to us!

But, for our purposes today, there’s another statistic about the new NDP government that’s important…one that hasn’t received nearly as much attention as the issue of gender balance.

The statistic I’m talking about has to do with worker and union representation.

Literally half of the caucus and half of the cabinet in our current provincial government are working people; former union members, activists and leaders … they’re people like you.

In fact, the new government caucus includes three people who used to sit as members of the AFL’s Executive Council, one person who worked as an Executive staff member for the AFL…and all of the big unions in this room today have at least one member, activist or leader who was elected as an MLA.

So, this is our moment because, finally, we have working people in positions of power – people like us who share our experience…and perhaps even more importantly, people who share our priorities and our values.

This is also our moment and our time because it’s working.

This government that we laid the groundwork for…this government that we helped elect…this government that shares our people and our priorities and our values… it has done something remarkable and valuable.

It has demonstrated that progressive policies – the ideas that we’ve been talking about for years – it has demonstrated that they actually work.

In the process, this government has also demonstrated that working people benefit when they elect other working people.

How different is this government from what came before?

Well, we know what would be happening right now if the Wildrose or the PC were in power. 

In the face of the collapse of global oil prices, and the recession that it has brought to our province, they would be cutting budgets and cutting services. They would be downsizing. They would be privatizing.

And they would probably be also using the crisis to justify a whole bunch of policies that have nothing to do with the recession, but which they prefer for ideological reasons: like tax cuts for the wealthy, or deregulation for corporations or legislative attacks on unions.

This is not hypothetical. We remember what Ralph Klein did when he faced a recession. Arguably our province has never fully recovered from his cuts.

And we just have to look across the border to Saskatchewan to see what a conservative government in an oil province would do today.

Brad Wall has slashed funding for public services; he’s going after public service wages…and just to make it clear whose side he’s really on, while he’s going after ordinary people, he’s cutting taxes for the wealthy.

But here in Alberta, instead of the Klein-Wall approach, thanks to the election of May 2015, we have a government that’s taking a different approach.

We have a government that says laying off a nurse or a paramedic won’t bring back jobs for boilermakers or ironworkers.

We have a government that understands that that kind of action will just swell the ranks of the unemployed

We have a government that understands that austerity doesn’t end recessions; it just makes them deeper.

But the difference that a vote makes doesn’t end there.

Instead of having a government that sees tax cuts for the wealthy as the solution to every problem, we have a government that, despite all the naysaying from the right-wing, is taking action on things we’ve spend years advocating for …

  • Like transforming the minimum wage into something closer to a real living wage.
  • Like getting rid of the regressive flat tax and increasing taxes on corporate profits, so we have more revenue to pay for public services.
  • Like investing in infrastructure to support growing communities and keep people working.
  • Like doing our part to address climate change.

There was a time, not that long ago, that people would have said that these ideas were too radical, too crazy.

In fact, even now, the Wildrose/Kenney crowd is running around saying that the NDP government is a disaster.

But the facts and the statistics tell another story.

Despite the rhetoric from the right, Alberta is projected to lead the country in economic growth.

Alberta is also leading the country in retail spending, a key indicator of economic health.

Just last month, Alberta added 20,000 jobs…almost all of them full-time. No other province was even close.

Alberta is also seeing activity ramp up in the energy sector, much faster than in Brad Wall’s supposedly more business-friendly Saskatchewan.

And, get this… Alberta is completely smoking other provinces in terms of attracting business investment.

So, even in a low oil price environment, this supposedly radical government; this government that we helped create; this government that shares our values…it’s schooling right-wing governments in other provinces and proving the naysayers wrong.

And it’s doing all of this not in spite of the policies that we’ve been advocating for … but because of them.

So, this is our time and our moment because it’s working.

This is also our time and our moment… because, with partners in government, we can now seriously consider the implementation of ideas and policies that before we could only dream out.

Under previous Conservative governments, we in the labour movement often won victories – but they were usually defensive victories. For example,

  • We stopped Ralph Klein’s Third Way.
  • We stopped Allison Redford’s attacks on our pensions.
  • We were good at stopping their worst …. but it was virtually impossible to win support for new ideas and better, progressive policies. 

But with this government, all that has changed.

They haven’t (yet) committed to support a universal pharma care program – but they’ll at least consider it.

The same is true with all of our other priorities:

Protections for our pensions; expanding the medicare umbrella to cover things like long-term care; better labour laws; better health and safety laws … a tax system that actually raises enough revenue to play for our public services …

With this government … what’s possible has been radically re-defined … in ways that are profoundly positive for working people.

So, this is our time, this is our moment. We created it, we’re part of it. And, while it’s never easy, it’s working and has a potential to work even better.

That brings us to this convention.

Over the next four days, we want to do a number of things…all in keeping with our theme.

First, we want to name and claim the moment.

We want to make it clear that this progressive moment that we’re currently enjoying didn’t just happen; it didn’t just fall out of the sky.

We helped create it. We helped make it happen.

So, at this convention, we want to acknowledge that fact and celebrate the result.

A big part of that celebration will happen this afternoon, when we hear from Labour Minister Christina Gray and Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson… and when, immediately upon adjournment, we have a reception with government MLAs in the foyer outside this room.

Second, at this convention, we want to talk about what we’re currently doing to take advantage of the new political moment and the opportunities for progressive change that it presents.

We’re going to talk about the working groups of affiliate unions that we’ve created to help prepare detailed policy asks for the government.

We’re going to talk about the coalitions we’ve created and the campaigns we’ve launched to engage with the government.

And we’re going to talk about the victories we’ve won and the progress we’re making.

Third, at this convention, we’re going to start talking about the new frontiers of the possible.

We’re going to talk about the ideas and policies that were out of reach under conservative governments, but which we can now seriously consider.

Things like pharmacare and childcare. Things like fully public long-term care. Things like free tuition. Things like programs and policies to create green jobs and to deal with inequality.

Coming out of this convention, I’m confident that we’ll have a bolder agenda and vision for progressive change than we have right now; an agenda and a vision that could help us shape our province for years to come.

And, fourth, at this convention, we will also want to talk about how we can defend this moment and make it last.

Related to that goal, we’ll be asking questions like…

What can we, as a labour movement, do to help highlight the fact, for our members and the public, that the government’s progressive policies, which we helped develop, are actually working?

What can we, as a labour movement, do to convey the message that progressive policies are the solution, not the problem: that they’re actually helping our economy through the recession, improving lives for ordinary working people, and building a foundation for future prosperity – prosperity that is shared broadly and not just concentrated at the top?

We’ll also ask…

What can we, as a labour movement, do to challenge and debunk the naysayers who say the sky is falling, when it most clearly is not?

What can we, as a labour movement, do to keep the government focused on the bold and progressive policies that we helped to craft and which helped them get elected?

And what can we, as a labour movement, do to keep the government honest and connected to the ordinary working people that are the key to their re-election?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll be asking and the kind of conversations that we’ll be having over the next few days.

But before we get there, in addition to welcoming you and providing framing remarks for this convention; I have one final, and very important, task to do this morning; a task that is very much in keeping with the theme of this convention.

And that task is to officially launch our latest campaign: the Unstack the Deck campaign.

As most of you know, earlier this year, the Alberta government announced its intention to review our province’s two central pieces of labour legislation, the Employment Standards Code and the Labour Relations Code, both of which were written in the 80s and haven’t been revised or reformed since.

Why does this matter? Because the rules of the game matter.

And for the past thirty years, the rules have been rigged; the playing field has been tipped; the deck has been stacked…against working people and in favour of employers.

How bad is it?

Let’s start by looking at the Employment Standards Code, which is supposed to provide a basic floor of workplace rights for the 75 percent of Alberta workers who are not covered by union-negotiated contracts.

But the floor is too low, and it’s full of holes.

Under the current Employment Standards Code, Albertans don’t have the same rights and protections in the workplace as other Canadians.

Whether this it’s hours of work, or scheduling, or vacations; we’re so far outside the Canadian mainstream, it’s not even funny.

And don’t get me started about enforcement. Under the Employment Standards Code, the rules our weak, but our inspectors don’t have the tools to enforce what little protections that workers have.

In fact, as a result of the weak enforcement tools, only THREE employers in Alberta have been prosecuted for violating workers’ rights under the Code … in the past ten years.

Three in ten years.

Even though we have 2.3 million people working on 150,000 worksites and even though more than 5,000 complaints are filed every year.

If that sound ridiculous, it is.

Then, there’s the Labour Relations Code, which sets out the rules governing how workers can join unions and bargain collectively.

To understand just how bad our Labour Code is, it has to been put in context.

Over the past five or six years, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that all working Canadians have the constitutionally protected right to join unions and bargain collectively.

They’ve taken this position, in part because they have concluded that unions are good for society because we provide the only effective counterbalance to corporate power.

At the same time, an increasing number of ecnomists are saying that unions are good for the economy because unions create and support a more robust middle class.

So, the courts and economists are saying that unions and collective bargaining are good for society and good for the economy and that they should be protected and promoted.

But our existing Labour Code does the exact opposite. It was deliberately designed by the conservatives to discourage unionization and inhibit collective bargaining.

So the bad news is that, when it comes to our two basic pieces of workplace legislation, we’re far, far outside the Canadian mainstream.

The good news is we don’t have to stay there.

That’s where our campaign comes in. And where you come in.

As you will hear this afternoon, the AFL and all of our affiliate unions have been lobbying the government to change Alberta’s workplace laws for the past two years.

But we’ve decided that we also need a public push: hence the unstack the deck campaign.

There’s a very good chance that we’ll see legislation within the next month or two. But it needs a final push to get it over the finish line and to counter the misinformation coming from hostile employer groups.

Our campaign has a number of components, and in order for it to be successful, we need you and your unions to engage with all of them over the coming month.

The first is the website, Unstack the Please visit it and share it.

The second is the “Contact your MLA” tool on the website. Please fill it out and encourage your members, your colleagues, your friends and your family to do the same.

The third, is our campaign to lobby MLAs, which we’ll be fleshing out later in this convention. No form of communication with MLAs is more powerful than a visit from an energized and engaged constituent. We have prepared lobby materials and a lobby plan. We need all of you to commit to taking those materials and meeting with you MLAs over the next month. And we need you to commit to mobilizing your members in your locals to do the same.

Finally, we’re having a rally…hopefully with a few thousand of our closest friends. It’s going to be held this Sunday, right after adjournment of this convention. I know everyone will be tired. But we’re asking for your commitment to attend the rally before you head home. We’re also asking you to promote the rally with your locals and your friends this week. It won’t be a protest rally…instead, it’ll be more of a pep rally designed to encourage the government to seize this opportunity to drag our labour laws into the 21st century.

The message of our campaign is simple.

30 years of unfair workplace laws is enough.

Now is the time to unstack the deck.

Now is the time to bring our laws into the Canadian mainstream…and beyond.

Specifically, we are sending the message that now is the time to introduce an Employment Standards Code that gives Albertans the same rights and protections in the workplace as other Canadians… a Code that has real teeth.

And on the Labour Code, we’re saying that now is the time for a law that actually allows Albertans to exercise their constitutionally-protected right to join unions and bargain collectively.

For the next month or two, this has to be our priority. This has to be the way we seize our moment. And we can’t do it without you.

In conclusion, I just want to say a couple of final words about our convention theme.

There are 3 groups of people who can potentially end our moment and foreclose the opportunities it brings.

The first group is obvious… the right wing. People who want to return to the previous status quo … a status quo that catered to the wealthy and, too often, shut out everyone else. 

The second group is the government itself. They’re not going to end the progressive moment or purpose … but they might let it slip away by getting spooked or losing their resolve.

The third group that could end our moment … is us. We helped create this moment … if we stop pushing … if we stop putting ideas on the table … if we stop believing … it will end.

So what do we, as a labour movement, need to do?

We need to take on the right-wing naysayers.

We need to say … Rachel didn’t cause the drop in the price of oil.

We need to say … budget cuts won’t end the recession, they’ll make it worse.

We need to call the Wildrose and the Kenney crowd on the fact that they don’t really have solutions to important issues of the day … like climate change, income inequality, economic diversification and restoring the struggling middle class. 

We also need to help strengthen the resolve of our partners in government.

We need to make sure they know that not all Albertans are critics.

We need to let them know that Albertans are looking for progressive solutions that put working people – not the wealthy and well-connected – at the centre of the equation – and that they’ll be awarded for being bold. 

Finally, we need to have a conversation with our members.

We need them to understand and fully appreciate that this is our moment.

We need to take full advantage of that moment by pushing this government to be bold and progressive, not timid.

And we need to continue to work hard … to make sure this progressive moment doesn’t end.

In the past, our challenge was to make gains and defend those gains in a hostile environment.

And guess what? It’s the same now. We just happen to have better tools, more powerful allies and bigger opportunities.

Will it be easy?

Nope. Progressive change and progressive government is never easy, it’s ALWAYS contested

But one thing is clear … this moment … this messy, difficult moment is ours.

It was created by progressive civil society.

And the labour movement is the foundation of that society.

As a result of the work that we will do together over the next few days, we’ll prepare ourselves for the challenge and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Together we’ll plan…together we’ll prepare … together we’ll raise a little hell … and together we’ll make the most of our moment!

Let’s get started!

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