The United Nurses of Alberta reached an agreement with Alberta Health Services on essential services staffing and will apply for formal mediation in negotiations, the union said Thursday.
“It brings the province one step closer to potential job action by registered nurses,” explained David Harrigan, UNA’s director of labour relations.
“In order to hold a strike vote, or for the employer to decide a lockout vote, the parties have to go through formal mediation. In order to apply for formal mediation, the parties have to have agreed on the essential service levels.”
In an update posted on the UNA website, the group said it wants to “proceed as quickly as possible to negotiate a new provincial collective agreement with Alberta Health Services and other major public-sector health care employers.”
However, local presidents made it clear to the bargaining committee “that rollbacks in member pay and long-established provisions of the collective agreement are not acceptable,” the UNA said.
The nurses’ union will be applying for formal mediation as quickly as possible.
In order “to facilitate the process,” the UNA has withdrawn its proposals for essential services agreements and accepted all AHS’ essential services staffing proposals.
That means the parties have agreed on what services will be provided if and when there is a strike, Harrigan explained.
He said it varies from unit to unit, hospital to hospital, city to city, but on average about one-third of members would be on strike and two-thirds would continue to work, being deemed “essential.”
“It means, in the event of job action, one-third of the workforce is going to be removed,” Harrigan said.
“They’re already very short-staffed. I think it’s very, very significant.”
Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a statement he is pleased the UNA and AHS have an essential services agreement “that will now be submitted to the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) for review.
“AHS and UNA will be filing a joint application to the ALRB for formal mediation,” Toews said.
He said the two parties want to reach an agreement and it is important that it happen quickly.
“Mediation is a normal part of the negotiation process and is a step forward, towards a settlement and long-term labour stability.
“I am confident that formal mediation will be productive as the two parties work collaboratively towards a deal that respects both the expertise of Alberta’s nurses and the province’s financial situation,” Toews said.
“In the past, mediation has been successful,” Harrigan told Global News, “but the sense that we’ve got from the employer and this government is: they’re not interested, they don’t care, and they’re demanding rollbacks despite the fact that they’re short of nurses, nurses have been working 16 hours a day for the last 16 months.
“To be told: ‘We’re going to cut your pay’ is obviously unacceptable.”
Under legislation, the mediator has 14 days to bring the parties to resolution. Often the timeline is extended, Harrigan said.
“It brings the issue of an impasse and a dispute a lot closer.”
He said it also has a deadline, unlike informal mediation.
“This sort of forces the parties to focus and decide whether they want a collective agreement or whether they want chaos.”
“Even if it does not lead to an agreement, it will allow the parties to exercise their strike or lockout rights,” Harrigan said.
Harrigan said Alberta has a health-care crisis and it’s hard to say whether the two sides will be able to reach an agreement.
“It’s incredibly stressful for nurses right now going to work every day. We polled our members and 75 per cent of our members said that every shift in the last five shifts they worked they were short staffed.
“People just cannot do that anymore.”
“It’s a bizarre situation because the official line from AHS and the government is: ‘There’s no emergency, there’s no crisis, everything is fine.’ But they wrote us a letter last week saying: ‘There’s an emergency and we’re invoking the emergency provisions in the collective agreement,’ which allows them to force nurses to work overtime, and move them from unit to unit and from one hospital to another hospital,” Harrigan said.
“We’ve reached an agreement on the essential services… We’re nowhere close to an agreement on a new collective agreement.”