The Alberta nurses union says its members are “incredibly disappointed” after hearing Tuesday employers like Alberta Health Services and Covenant Health are proposing a three per cent salary rollback.
“Yesterday was incredibly unsettling,” United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith told Global News on Wednesday.
“There was a little bit of shock.”
The salary cut comes as the provincial government aims to get its finances sorted.
In January 2020, AHS tabled a four-year agreement with a zero per cent salary increase for nurses each year, Smith said.
“It was made very clear that the change in the position of Alberta Health Services was directed by government,” she said.
The union, which represents more than 30,000 nurses in Alberta, said this is on top of other cutbacks like the elimination of semi-annual lump-sum payments as well as reduced shift and weekend premiums.
“This represents at least a five per cent compensation reduction,” UNA said in a post on its website, providing an update on the collective bargaining process.
UNA added that employers did return to current overtime provisions as well as transportation and education allowances.
The reaction from Alberta nurses has been strong, Smith said.
“A kick to the gut. ‘When is the strike vote?’
“‘We’ve gone from being heroes to zeroes’… heroes to minus three and minus five, when you look at the combination of yesterday’s proposals and others.”
Smith said the proposal will mobilize UNA’s membership as it “brings home a clear message from the government about their value.”
She added hospitals are already short-staffed and nurses are being stretched far too thin after the pandemic.
“This could not come at a worse time in terms of the exhaustion of my membership.”
The next step is to continue along the bargaining process so that legal job action can be taken if that’s the will of UNA members, Smith said.
In a statement on Tuesday, Finance Minister Travis Toews commended the “invaluable role” nurses have played in the COVID-19 pandemic but noted Alberta needs to get its finances back on track.
“On average, Alberta nurses make 5.6 per cent more than in other comparator provinces. This costs Alberta approximately $141 million per year at a time when our finances are already stretched,” he said.
“The need to bring wages in line with other large provinces does not diminish our deep respect for the exceptional work and dedication of public sector workers. It is simply reflective of our fiscal reality and one that many sectors in the province have experienced.”
The premier was asked about the negotiations with the nurses’ union on Thursday. While Jason Kenney said he didn’t want to comment too much out of respect for the negotiation process, he did thank all health-care workers for their services, especially during the pandemic.
He said that’s one of the reasons the province extended the COVID-19 wage top-up to nurses “as a small expression of gratitude on behalf of Albertans.”
Kenney pointed to the MacKinnon panel on Alberta’s finances, which underscored wage costs in Alberta’s health system are “substantially higher” than other provinces.
He said the province is facing a $16- to $17-billion deficit.
“This government is not going to squeeze more money out of taxpayers by raising their taxes to deal with that. We just need to operate more efficiently.”
Kenney said the province will reallocate saved dollars directly to patient care.
“Any dollar that we save in collection bargaining negotiations — or for that matter, in a new agreement with the medical association — 100 per cent of those savings would be kept in the health system to improve patient care.”
But Smith says it’s unfair to put the burden of cuts on the public sector alone.
“What we have is a government that’s refusing to acknowledge that we have a revenue problem and is trying to solve that problem basically on the back of public sector workers, including nurses. It’s not acceptable,” Smith said.
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt wasn’t surprised by the proposed salary cuts for nurses — the UCP made it clear it would target savings in health care during the 2019 election, he said — but he was surprised by the timing.
“During the 2019 election, the UCP was on track, they realized that while there may be sympathies to nurses, the more important thing was to get the fiscal house in order. They won an election on that,” he said.
“But things are very different now than they were then. First, we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s very risky for the government… To be able to tell nurses: ‘Thank you for your service, you did great work during the pandemic and as a reward we want three per cent back from your salary.’ And that’s even if there is no fourth wave,” Bratt said.
The MacKinnon report detailed ways the province could save money, he pointed out, and pointed to reductions targeting teachers, doctors, nurses and other public sector workers.
“The government had a plan and they want to go ahead with the plan,” Bratt said. “That plan may have been delayed by the pandemic but they still believe there’s a structural problem in Alberta, they believe that public sector workers are paid more in Alberta than in other provinces — which is true — but they failed to recognize that Albertans pay less taxes than anybody else.
“We’ve always had this gap between low taxes and high public services and resource revenue filled in the gap. Well, that resource revenue, for the past couple years, hasn’t filled in the gaps.”
But proposing public sector wage cuts leading into an election could hurt the UCP, Bratt said.
“Initially, they wanted to do this early, get it out of the way, and then there would be a year, two years, before the election. But if they’re going to start this now, they’re running out of runway.
“We’re going to be right in the middle of an election right after some really fierce battles with public sector unions, particularly nurses, who people are really sympathetic to.
“It’s all about the timing on so many different levels: the timing towards the next election, the timing right in the aftermath of the pandemic, as well as the premier’s popularity, which is very different from 2019 to today.”
Another public sector union facing negotiations is the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
The AUPE represents more than 95,000 Albertans who work in government, health care, education, boards and agencies, municipalities and private companies. The majority work in the public sector and about one-third of AUPE’s members are direct employees of the Alberta government.
“We’ve seen concessions and rollbacks including a four-per cent rollback one year followed by a few years of zeros. That’s the government’s proposal right now,” AUPE president Guy Smith said.
“We have concluded face-to-face negotiations. We are entering into voluntary informal mediation in a couple weeks which we’re hopeful will result in a collective agreement but the parties are still very far apart.”
When it comes to bargaining involving AUPE’s health-care members, Smith anticipates similar rollbacks that were proposed to the UNA on Tuesday.
“It’s going to be very tough to get a negotiated agreement that both parties can agree to… There’d have to be a lot of movement.
“Our health-care members are dropping like flies because they’re so short-staffed and obviously the demands of the pandemic over the last 16 months have been horrendous,” he said.
“Tough bargaining in a very volatile situation.”
Smith said there’s “significant potential” for work stoppages or lockouts.
“I anticipate that’s going to hit an impasse in the next few months.”
And he says AUPE expects to see similar trends across all bargaining tables.