UPDATE: On Monday night, the Alberta Labour Relations Board ordered general support services workers in Alberta’s health-care sector and auxiliary nursing care staff who walked off the job or didn’t show up for shifts to go back to work. For more details, click here.
Alberta Health Services says it is “responding quickly to illegal strike action” taken by members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees across the province Monday morning.
Front-line hospital workers walked off the job at several locations across Alberta Monday morning, to “defend their jobs and the public health-care system that keeps Albertans safe and alive,” according to the AUPE.
Shortly after 8 a.m., dozens of health-care workers could be seen picketing outside of the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton.
Terry Inigo-Jones, communications officer with the AUPE, said the walkout started Monday morning at the Royal Alex, then groups across the province joined in, including workers at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary and other sites in Fort Saskatchewan, Cold Lake, St. Paul, Wetaskiwin and Leduc.
There was also a walkout at the University of Alberta Hospital, AHS confirmed at noon Monday.
Unit clerks, housekeeping, food services and laundry services staff, as well as licensed practical nurses, health-care aids and maintenance workers were involved in the walkouts. Registered nurses were not involved, according to the AUPE.
“Anger has been building among members for months,” AUPE president Guy Smith said.
Smith said, “the last straw” for health-care workers was a recent announcement by Health Minister Tyler Shandro that 11,000 Alberta Health Services jobs would be cut. Earlier this month, Shandro announced about 9,700 jobs will be lost through outsourcing support services such as laundry, community lab and food services.
Shandro said AHS was also asked to eliminate 100 management positions. At the time, Shandro maintained “there will be no job loses for nurses or front-line clinical staff.”
The changes will save the government upwards of $600 million annually once fully implemented, Shandro said.
Smith said Monday morning that nursing and support workers “decided today that there was no other option but to fight to protect Albertans at risk, especially during the deadliest pandemic in a century.
“By constantly short-staffing public health care, this government is pushing our members to the breaking point exactly when Albertans need them most.”
In a statement, AHS said it is doing all it can to address any interruptions to patient care caused by the job action. However, it said non-emergency surgeries are being postponed. All emergency procedures will continue as well as some urgent surgeries, such as cancer procedures.
Non-urgent ambulatory care procedures and clinic visits are also being postponed. Patients will be contacted directly if their appointments are affected.
Visitors may be limited at some acute care sites depending on the level of strike action, AHS said.
“Our focus is on ensuring patients continue to receive the care and treatment they need,” the statement said.
AHS is enacting contingency plans to redeploy non-union staff, including managers, wherever possible to cover for missing staff. It has also reached out to staff to ask them to return to work.
“AHS has made an application to the Labour Relations Board today to formally ask the board to direct the affected employees back to work.”
In a statement, president of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance Travis Toews said he is aware of the strikes and that the government’s primary concern is ensuring the health and wellbeing of patients, “which has been put at risk this morning.”
“Alberta Health Services is taking immediate action with the Alberta Labour Relations Board to end this illegal activity. Those involved in this illegal action will be held accountable,” Toews said.
“My expectation is that all unions respect the bargaining process, stop putting Albertans’ safety at risk and abide by the law.”
The AUPE represents more than 90,000 workers, including about 58,000 in health care. The union represents about 2,800 nursing-care and support workers at the Royal Alexandra.
Carmen Callin, a medical device reprocessing technician, was among the members on the picket line at the Royal Alex Monday.
“We’re showing our solidarity. We’re trying to show the government that we’re fighting against these cuts, we don’t want to lose our jobs, we don’t want to lose our wage and we’re not going to take this,” she said.
“We’re in a pandemic right now, this is disrespectful to all the health-care workers right now as we’re working hard trying to protect Albertans.”
Callin said workers want to ensure their jobs and wages are kept intact.
“We don’t want anything to be privatized,” she said. “We might be out here all day. We might be out here tomorrow. We’re out here until we get what we need from the government. There’s no time limit to this. We’re here until we get what we need.”
Debas Mehari works in housekeeping at the Foothills hospital in Calgary and joined the picket line “for my rights, for my benefits, for my salary.”
“We have to stand for our rights, that’s why I’m here,” Mehari said. “It’s not fair because we have a lot of responsibility, we have a mortgage, we have kids — everybody has a life but other places, for example in other countries, they give extra money for COVID time and these guys would cut. It’s not fair.”
AUPE vice president Susan Slade said members are angry and frustrated.
“These are public jobs that need to stay in the public and it’s very provocative of Tyler Shandro to be writing pink slips and telling people that they are going to be abolished and at the same time, praising them for the work they’re done in this last eight months,” she said.
“They have done a wildcat strike so they won’t be going in until some of the negotiations have been met.”
Smith said members want to see the health minister cancel his plans to privatize jobs. They also want to see short-staffing issues addressed.
“How long they stay out here is completely up to them,” Smith said. “This has been an action undertaken by AUPE members, supported by AUPE as an organization.”
The AUPE said its members are committed to ensuring patient safety during any dispute.
“Members will do everything in their power to keep Albertans safe. Public safety is why they are taking this action. They know that slashing thousands of front-line jobs during a pandemic is mad. It will lead to lower levels of care and higher costs. It will lead to tragedies,” Smith said.
Opposition leader Rachel Notley said the wildcat strikes are “deeply concerning.”
“Like all Albertans, our caucus believes patient safety must always be the top priority,” she said in a statement.
“Jason Kenney’s proposal to privatize the work of 11,000 front-line health-care workers in the middle of a pandemic will absolutely result in poorer quality health care for Albertans. His suggestion that this can be done without compromising care defies common sense. For the sake of Alberta patients and the people who care about them, this reckless plan must stop.”
In a statement, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents 27,000 health-care professionals in Alberta, said it supports AUPE workers.
“Health-care workers have been working tirelessly to keep Albertans safe and they have been rewarded with threats to their jobs by a government that is hell-bent on ripping apart our public health-care system,” HSAA president Mike Parker said in a media release.
“The blame for any disruption to patient care that may occur today needs to land squarely at the feet of Jason Kenney and the UCP.”
The United Nurses of Alberta said it’s not a surprise that workers have chosen job action “to defend the health care system and their own jobs”… “in a political and labour relations environment characterized by a wholesale attack on public health care and health care workers by the Kenney Government.”
UNA president Heather Smith, said the union supports the striking health care workers and that its members will not do the work of other union members.
“UNA members have the right to express their support for their co-workers on their own time and UNA will encourage them to do so. At this time no decision has been made on whether UNA will join the job action.”
The UNA is urging the government to put its plans on hold and “work calmly for reconciliation with workers throughout the health care system.”
Members of the Alberta Federation of Labour, UNA and HSAA joined AUPE members on the picket line at the Royal Alex Monday afternoon, as those in the crowd chanted “stand up to Kenney” and “union power.”
“We are here today to show solidarity for your struggle and to salute you for leading the way,” AFL president Gil McGowan said.
“This is just the beginning. Today is the first day of many days, however many days it will take to defend our public health-care system and you will not do it alone.”
“If we don’t fight back, we’re going to waste our public dollars, we’re going to see deteriorating working conditions,” added UNA president Heather Smith. “We need to stand up to Jason Kenney and this agenda… that is harmful to all Albertans.”
The Alberta Teachers’ Association also issued a statement supporting striking health-care workers around Alberta, saying the labour action is a “direct response to government decisions to cut, gut and privatize public health care.”