Union decries agriculture cuts

Layoffs will occur across the agriculture department, from 4-H to farm safety 
and research to irrigation

Rural residents and farmers affected by losses in agricultural services due to Alberta government job cuts are being sacrificed to the belief you can cut your way to prosperity, says a union leader.

“We understand in addition to these cuts, there’ll be more coming,” said vice-president Mike Dempsey of the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE), referring to the upcoming provincial budget in February.

Related story: Alta. ag layoffs called ‘a pretty significant change’

The union recently announced 930 provincial government jobs across Alberta were under threat, with some cuts due to begin immediately.

“Many of these new cuts are concentrated in rural areas affecting wildfire management, farm safety programs, the 4-H program, business development in Brooks and Leduc, and other areas of Agriculture and Forestry,” it said in a statement Oct. 21.

A total of 247 positions in Alberta Agriculture are expected to be abolished, said the Public Services Commission in a disclosure letter Oct. 19 to AUPE. The losses will occur in two phases, it said, with the first phase this month and the second in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year, which is from Jan. 1 to March 31.

“We made a commitment to Albertans to deliver government services and programs efficiently and effectively,” said an email by Jerrica Goodwin, press secretary at Treasury Board and Finance.

“Nearly a year ago the Public Service Commission disclosed to the AUPE that departments are reviewing programs which would result in workforce restructuring, reorganization and alternative service delivery…. No decision during these difficult times is easy and attrition will be used where possible.”

The disclosure letter was sent to the union’s negotiations team, which is slated to begin bargaining for a new collective agreement with the provincial government Nov. 5, 12 and 13.

Dempsey said it is particularly callous to threaten people’s livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said Oct. 21 that morale is so low among AUPE members, who number more than 95,000 people, that he wouldn’t be surprised if a wildcat strike spontaneously occurred in the next two weeks.

“After careful consideration, difficult decisions were made,” said an e-mail by Justin Laurence, press secretary to Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen.

“Adjustments will not negatively impact our core businesses and legislative responsibilities for food safety, animal disease, animal health, investment attraction activities, or trade access for commodities.”

The provincial government has separately pressured rural municipalities to accept tax cuts to help oil and gas companies, affecting services used by rural residents and farmers, said Dempsey.

Among the rural job cuts are 21 jobs in Alberta Agriculture’s process trade and international relations division, said the commission. These include the Food Science and Technology Centre in Brooks and the Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc.

Things such as “agri-food laboratories for food microbiology, parasitology and support services will be reduced or eliminated, although the large majority of positions in the laboratories will remain,” it said.

The Business Development Services program will be “refocused on activities that address sector growth and market access issues.”

Thirteen jobs will be abolished in the strategy, planning and governance division, said the commission. They include 10 jobs at 4-H Alberta, which will be consolidated into five managed areas, down from seven regions and 56 districts.

About 135 positions will be abolished in the ministry’s primary agriculture division.

They include realigning priorities in the Irrigation and Farm Water branch and the Environmental and Farm Stewardship branch, said the commission. The provincial government recently announced $815 million will be provided to upgrade irrigation systems in southern Alberta.

Further job losses in the primary agriculture division involve refocusing the work of programs such as Agriculture Service Boards, Crop Assurance — including farm safety programs — and Plant and Bee Health Surveillance, said the commission.

Other cuts involve transitioning research to a “farmer-led delivery model,” including the recent creation of the Results Driven Agriculture Research organization, it said.

As a result, jobs will be abolished in research and extension in the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) science and research program, as well as the Dairy Research and Extension Consortium of Alberta.

Other positions will be lost in research and extension in greenhouse service agreements and cropping systems, along with apiculture research, innovation agriculture grants, applied research in value-added meats, and the strategic research and development program, said the commission.

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