Between May, 1993 and November, 1994, the Progressive Conservative government of Ralph Klein had eliminated tens of thousands of jobs in the public sector in Alberta and cut the wages and benefits of workers who remained. The 1994 budget announced a 20 percent cut in health care, a 21 percent cut in postsecondary education and a 12.4 percent cut in K-12 education; the welfare rolls were cut in half over one year, and homelessness climbed 740 percent during the Klein years in office. Within two years, Alberta program spending declined by over 21 percent. The ability of public employees to deliver public services suffered but that helped serve the Klein government agenda of privatizing as many services as possible and belittling the responsibility of government to ensure that the health, education, and social needs of all Albertans, regardless of income, were met. The trade union movement was caught by surprise by the ferocity of the government attack against people who delivered essential services to the people of Alberta and seemed unable to counter the premier’s false claims that the province was deeply in debt and without means to raise the funds necessary to deliver government services and to build and maintain necessary infrastructure. The premier’s bold-faced lies about the efficiency of public service workers versus private-sector workers required a far sturdier response than the trade union movement and other civil society organizations provided.
So when the Calgary Health Authority, a body appointed by Premier Klein, agreed to further the province’s privatization agenda by contracting out the jobs of Calgary hospital laundry workers, it expected a defeatist compliance from the affected workers. The workers responded quite differently. They had taken a 28 percent cut in the previous round of bargaining in order to preserve their jobs and expected that such a sacrifice on the part of low-wage workers would be enough even for King Ralph. They were determined not to simply lie down and play dead as pawns in a Tory game to destroy the public sector in which they toiled. The first to respond were 60 laundry workers at the Calgary General Hospital, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Their union representatives told them that a wildcat strike would be illegal and could result in them being fined and the union being decertified. But the workers wanted to defy their oppressors and seek public support. They all called in sick on November 14, 1994, when they learned that their jobs would be handed over to K-Bro Linens in Edmonton. The next day the same scenario played out at the Foothills Hospital where the laundry workers were members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
Within ten days about 2500 workers in six hospitals and nine nursing homes were on wildcat strikes and hundreds of other healthcare workers joined work-to-rule and other worker solidarity efforts. Trade unionists from outside the health sector as well as many members of the general public demonstrated solidarity with the strikers on their picket line and in public rallies. Premier Klein watched in horror as his carefully orchestrated dismantling of public services in Alberta seemed to crumble. He worried about how far the spreading strikes in the public service might go. Indeed the Alberta Federation of Labour, also impressed by the anger of public service workers, discussed but then decided against attempting to call a general strike to demand that the Alberta government roll back its cuts and privatizations. The Calgary Health Authority, under pressure from the government, offered the unions a delay in contracting out of 18 months, long enough for most of the affected workers to find other jobs. The striking workers were divided on an offer that would not preserve their jobs in the long run. But with the solidarity with their strike fading a bit, the possibility of a broader strike disappearing, and the threat of legal action, a majority decided that the 18-month offer was the best that they could hope for under the circumstances. The “tough guy” government of Ralph Klein had blinked and it was a group of mainly immigrant women workers who had caused it to blink. The courage displayed by the laundry workers inspired a wave of strikes and job actions by other healthcare workers; licensed practical nurses and general support service workers repeatedly took part in some of the largest walk-outs in Alberta’s history during the closing years of that decade.
While the laundry workers’ victory was a partial one, the events that they set in motion marked a victory for all Alberta working people. The Klein government invested an additional $100 million into medical care, responding to a constant accusation during the wildcat that they had cut too much too soon and both workers and the public were hurting as a result. The cuts and privatizations largely stopped for several years and the government began reinvesting in public services however modestly. The Klein years overall were a wasteland for Alberta working people but they would have been a lot worse if the laundry workers had not inspired a large section of the Alberta working class to demonstrate that they would not accept cuts and privatizations beyond those that the premier had doled out during his first two years in office.