It is, in many ways, an enviable dilemma. After three years of severe spending cuts, Alberta’s Conservative government tabled a provincial budget on Feb. 22 that, for the first time since 1985, projected a revenue surplus for the year. The size of the surplus is small—just $23 million—and, under Alberta law, it must go towards paying off the province’s $6.8-billion net debt. But the government also predicts that, if all goes well, it could have at least $200 million more in extra funds at the end of the 1996-1997 fiscal year to spend as it sees fit. And starting this week, the Tories are launching a public information campaign asking Albertans where they would like to see that money go. In a 12-page booklet entitled “Straight Talk, Clear Choices,” being mailed to 1.1 million Alberta households, residents are asked to choose from among three basic options: use the money to pay off the debt even quicker; spend more on programs; or cut taxes. “Because of the solid fiscal plan that’s now in place,” Premier Ralph Klein writes in the booklet, “we have flexibility and room to consider new choices for the future.”
Those words, however, have a distinctly hollow ring for the estimated 10,000 provincial employees who lost their jobs since Klein became premier in December, 1992, as well as for the 100,000 other public-sector workers who agreed to take pay cuts averaging five per cent in exchange for what they thought would be job security. Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, says that her members accepted the wage rollback as a way to save jobs—only to see the number of registered nurses employed on a permanent basis in Alberta drop by 30 per cent from 1994 to 1995. “There is an extreme sense of betrayal felt on the part of workers in this province,” says Smith. Now, her association is one of several public-sector labor groups who insist that the lost
wages should be reinstated in the next round of collective bargaining, set to begin this spring. Faced with an uncertain labor market, they are also demanding that the government stop farming out their jobs to casual workers and the private sector—moves that Smith says has helped to create “terror in the workplace.”
In the health-care field, at least, workers may enjoy considerable public support Last November, following a series of illegal walkouts by health-care workers in Calgary, Klein declared that he was cancelling a scheduled $53 million in health-care cuts. A poll conducted by the Angus Reid Group the same week that Klein made his announcement suggests the premier made a wise political choice. In a province where labor activists are often viewed with suspicion, two-thirds of respondents said they supported the picketing health-care workers. The poll also showed that, on the heels of spending cuts that had sliced the province’s annual health-care budget by $600 million since 1993, concern over the quality of health care had displaced deficit reduction as the central preoccupation of Albertans.
For all of that, recent polls also show that Klein and his government continue to enjoy the support of a solid majority of Albertans. And last week, Hein suggested that Ontario Premier Mike Harris could have warded off some of the labor strife now sweeping that province by following Alberta’s example of first cutting politicians’ pay and eliminating their generous pension plan before asking workers to accept cuts. “That’s the one thing that he [Harris] didn’t do,” said Hein. “We felt if we were going to ask other segments of the public sector to make sacrifices, we had to lead the way.” Coming from a fellow fiscal crusader, that had to hurt.
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