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Alberta finance minister accuses nurses’ union of trying to ‘take advantage of a health crisis’

Click to play video 'United Nurses of Alberta rejects proposal to delay collective bargaining' United Nurses of Alberta rejects proposal to delay collective bargaining
In the midst of rising COVID-19 case numbers, the UCP government and Alberta's nurses have entered into a public war of words. Tom Vernon has more on how the United Nurses of Alberta has rejected a proposal to delay collective bargaining.

Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a blistering news release on Thursday afternoon, accusing an Alberta nurses union of orchestrating an “overreaching and disingenuous demand for indefinite job security” that he described as “a shameful effort to take advantage of a health crisis.”

Toews issued the statement after the United Nurses of Alberta, which represents more than 30,000 registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and “allied workers,” announced it had rejected Alberta Health Services’ proposal to delay collective bargaining until 2021.

“I am extremely disappointed that the union leadership of the United Nurses of Alberta has rejected stability during a pandemic,” Toews’ statement reads in part. “AHS offered job security during the pandemic in exchange for a pause in negotiations until March 31, 2021.

“It is regrettable that UNA’s union leadership has decided to play games in the media around this common-sense offer to pause bargaining.”

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READ MORE: Staffing shortages leading to burn-out at Foothills hospital amid COVID-19 outbreaks: unions

On Thursday evening, UNA director of labour relations David Harrigan said Toews’ comments are “misleading Albertans.”

“It is simply untrue that UNA is seeking ‘indefinite job security,'” he said. “We proposed that the current no-layoff letter of understanding continue until a new collective agreement is reached.

“By insulting Alberta nurses and refusing to postpone a government plan to lay off at least 750 nurses until after a new collective agreement is in place, Mr. Toews is generating considerable uncertainty in the health-care system.”

Click to play video 'War of words between United Nurses of Alberta and province over collective bargaining' War of words between United Nurses of Alberta and province over collective bargaining
War of words between United Nurses of Alberta and province over collective bargaining

Harrigan also questioned why Toews would issue such a statement on the same day Alberta recorded its highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour period since the pandemic hit the province.

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“(It) is almost incomprehensible,” he said.

Earlier in the day, the UNA posted an update on its website, saying it had proposed to AHS that negotiations resume next month.

“However, after UNA suggested negotiations resume on Nov. 16, 2020, AHS rejected that proposal, instead suggesting that the two bargaining teams next meet on March 31, 2021,” the union said. “UNA declined the AHS position to delay negotiations until 2021, as well as an offer to delay layoffs until that date.

“UNA believes that any layoffs should be postponed until a new collective agreement is reached.”

In a statement to Global News, AHS said it had proposed “an extension on the current suspension of bargaining, which was put in place on March 18, 2020 and scheduled to end on Oct. 15, 2020.”

“It is unfortunate we were unable to reach an agreement with UNA to continue these arrangements in exchange for an extension of current job security provisions,” the health authority said. “While we feel our focus should remain on our COVID-19 response, we accept the union’s response and we will work with them to schedule bargaining dates in the coming weeks.

“We are extremely grateful to all of our staff who are doing all they can to help us respond to this ongoing pandemic.”

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The UNA said it wants clarity from AHS on a number of things, including operational best practices, the contracting out of home-care services, including nursing, palliative and pediatric care, the reconfiguration of services provided at “smaller health-care work sites” and the potential closure of acute care beds.

Earlier this month, the UNA told Global News that the reason it wants to get back to the bargaining table sooner than later is to find a long-term solution to addressing safety, staffing and pay concerns that nurses are voicing, particularly amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mr. Toews needs to tone down the rhetoric and stop insulting the group of workers who are keeping the health-care system running through this crisis,” Harrigan said. “The government’s announcement a year ago it intended to lay off at 750 nurses this year, and more in future years, had already created enormous uncertainty before the pandemic began.”

Premier Jason Kenney weighed in on Friday morning, echoing the finance minister’s call to defer negotiations.

“We have asked the UNA to work with us in just deferring negotiations on their new contract until we’re out of the COVID era. We don’t want either the government of Alberta, or the nurses union to be distracted by contract negotiations at this time. I think the public, quite rightly, expects that we’ll all stay focused on job number one, which is preserving both lives and livelihoods and our delivery of health care through the pandemic.”

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Kenney said he values the work of nurses at the best of times, but particularly over the past seven “challenging months.” He called on the union to work with the government.

“That’s, I think, the most sensible way forward, particularly with health-care workers … to delay negotiations until we can get past COVID and the uncertainty that it represents. So we hope that they’ll be responsive to that and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Opposition Finance Critic Shannon Phillips issued a statement on Friday in response to Toews’ remarks, saying it was “unbelievable” that the minister would be “picking fights with nurses” on the same day Alberta recorded its highest single-day number of new COVID-19 cases.

“These statements by Travis Toews are arrogant and insulting,” her statement reads in part. “He is threatening to fire 750 nurses and they are simply asking him not to do that until the pandemic has subsided and proper contract negotiations conclude. To accuse nurses working double shifts, often at more than one hospital, of ‘taking advantage of a health crisis’ is despicable.

“It’s clear he is planning to fire these nurses regardless of case count.”

Once the pandemic hit Alberta in March, both Toews and Health Minister Tyler Shandro told reporters at a news conference that it would not lay off nurses amid the ongoing pandemic.

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Watch below: Some Global News videos about nurses in Alberta during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s hard to believe this doesn’t mean the government plans to go ahead and lay off nurses as soon as it can get away with it,” Harrigan said.

“The belligerent tone of the minister’s statement is extremely unhelpful under the circumstances when we should all be pulling together for the good of Albertans.”

Toews says AHS and HSAA reach deal to push back negotiations

On Friday, Toews issued a statement saying that AHS and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta struck a deal to extend collective bargaining until March 31, 2021.

“The HSAA is demonstrating real leadership by agreeing to extend the delay in bargaining until next year,” Toews’ statement reads in part.

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“This extension will provide much needed stability for the health-care system as we continue to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The HSAA is a union that represents more than 27,000 paramedical technical, professional and general support employees in the province’s public and private health-care sectors.

In a statement posted on its website Friday, the HSAA said the agreement comes with layoff for HSAA protections until collective bargaining resumes.

The union said it opted to agree to the delay because it believes with the ongoing pandemic and state of Alberta’s economy, it was best to accept the short-term job protection.

“At the same time, the recent interjections of Finance Minister Travis Toews into the United Nurses of Alberta’s bargaining decisions have not made the bargaining climate better,” the HSAA noted. “His comments about the leadership of that union were clearly meant to be inflammatory and to cause division and polarization amongst Albertans.

“We’ve seen these same tactics used by political leaders in the U.S. and have witnessed the consequences. This is not what Albertans want.”

The HSAA said it hopes the Kenney government will “learn to become more respectful of the process as we move forward.”

With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News.

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