The UNA said AHS negotiators contacted the union over the long weekend to say they had a new mandate from the government to amend their bargaining proposals before formal mediation got underway.
The revised proposal from AHS to UNA includes a long-term contract for nurses, according to the provincial government. The proposal includes a wage freeze for the first three years and a modest wage increase in the fourth and fifth years of the mandate, Minister of Treasury Board and Finance Travis Toews said.
The UNA said the final two years of the contract would see wage increases of one per cent.
“I’m pleased that AHS has issued a revised labour proposal to UNA in hopes of reaching a new collective agreement with the province’s nurses,” Toews said in a statement Wednesday morning.
“This new proposal acknowledges the hard work and dedication of Alberta’s nurses, while respecting the tough fiscal situation the province is in.”
For months, Toews has been demanding a three per cent rollback for the 30,000-plus members of UNA.
Toews has said nurses are overpaid compared with other jurisdictions, making about 5.6 per cent more by comparison, and that these wages can’t be sustained in a province trying to bring its budget back in balance.
“Alberta can no longer afford to be an outlier,” Toews said in a statement on July 6.
Alberta has been running multibillion-dollar budget deficits for years as it deals with price troughs in the oil sector compounded by money to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was looking down the barrel of an $18-billion deficit this year, a forecast now cut to about $8 billion of red ink due to a rebound in global oil prices.
The UNA said it is pleased the “offensive rollbacks,” including a three-per-cent across-the-board cut to the salary appendix, have been dropped. However, the union added there are still some areas of concern.
The AHS proposal “maintains the employer’s demand for elimination of lump-sum payments, which would cost UNA members two per cent a year in pay, and a letter of understanding that would take away important scheduling protections for nurses,” the UNA said in a bargaining update Tuesday.
“While the changes in the today’s new proposal do represent an improvement in the employer’s bargaining position, they would do nothing to address the critical problem of attrition and retention now faced by Alberta Health Services throughout the province,” the UNA said.
“Recent moves by AHS to hire contract nurses from out of province at much higher pay rates than those in UNA’s collective agreement show that the problem faced by AHS is chronic, year-round, and province-wide, not primarily experienced in rural areas or only as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and seasonal staff vacations.”
Toews acknowledged there are still a number of items that need to be negotiated, but added he is hopeful the two sides will continue to work together to reach “a fair and reasonable deal.”
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the government’s retreat was the result of finally realizing that trying to cut nurses’ salaries during a health and staffing crisis “was beyond idiotic.”
“All of this is just more evidence that this government doesn’t know what they’re doing,” Notley added. “We’re actually now at a point of pure incompetence.”
The last four-year collective agreement with Alberta Health Services and the UNA expired in the spring of 2020.
The two sides mutually agreed twice to suspend contract talks to focus on the pandemic, but last March the UNA served notice it was time to resume bargaining.
The UNA said it will meet with the mediator on Friday. Failure in mediation could lead to a strike vote by nurses.
When asked for comment, AHS said it did not have anything to add beyond the statement from Toews.
With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press.