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UCP posturing around public sector wages portends a return to perpetual crisis in health care

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The amusing staged photo of part of UNA's bargaining team that accompanied the union's news release yesterday. Photo: United Nurses of Alberta.

The United Conservative Party Government's transparent early manoeuvres around public sector wage negotiations and the heavy hints found in a paper by the chair of Premier Jason Kenney's "blue ribbon panel" on Alberta's finances portend a stormy period ahead in public sector labour relations, especially in health care.

Since health care makes up such a significant portion of the Alberta and Canadian public sectors, this in turn signals a return to the perpetual crisis that is emblematic of the health-care system under Conservative rule.

So if you were one of those Alberta voters for whom health care had ceased to be a front-burner issue under the capable leadership of former NDP health minister Sarah Hoffman (now the Opposition education critic), well … fasten your seatbelt!

In a news release yesterday, United Nurses of Alberta's labour relations director David Harrigan revealed that even before its MLAs had been sworn in, Kenney's UCP government was interfering with the collective bargaining process and acting as if the terms of legal contracts between employee unions and public sector employers can be changed without consultation at the whim of the government.

The release said UNA has filed an application with the Alberta Labour Relations Board to overturn an arbitrator's ruling that would allow Alberta Health Services, on the instructions of the government, to ignore specific wording in the its collective agreement with UNA about the timing of wage-reopener negotiations already under way.

UNA's agreement states that in the event no agreement is reached in bargaining, an arbitration hearing must be held no later than June 30, 2019.

In addition, the union filed grievances against several employers covered by its main agreement (AHS is the largest) arguing they are bargaining in bad faith because the shots are being called by the government.

UNA's bargaining committee was told by AHS bargaining team members they had been instructed by the UCP government to put negotiations on hold until it could "engage in consultation" with public sector unions.

Confronted by reporters, Finance Minister Travis Toews admitted yesterday that, yeah, the government had instructed AHS to stop the arbitration. However, he refused to say if the government will demand a wage rollback.

Which brings us back to blue ribbon panel chair Janice MacKinnon's suggestions in her October 2017 paper co-authored with University of Calgary economist Jack Mintz, a favourite of conservative politicians and right-wing media, that offers a strategy for "putting the Alberta budget on a new trajectory."

You can't argue with the title of the paper even if you doubt its conclusions!

Using legislation to declare war on public employees by cutting wages that have been frozen since 2016, slashing taxes for billionaires and profitable foreign corporations, and all the rest of the Conservative austerity playbook would certainly put the provincial budget on a new trajectory. Or, rather, restore it to an old one that didn't work very well.

However, one can certainly argue with the paper's conclusions and predictions -- that big tax cuts will create jobs, for example, the self-serving claim of right-wing governments everywhere that has been repeatedly debunked by economic research.

It seems to me a fair observation that one of the principal objectives of MacKinnon's 2017 paper was to justify her controversial performance as the Saskatchewan NDP's finance minister in the 1990s, when her signature budget-balancing policy was to close 52 rural hospitals. That won the Saskatchewan NDP a permanent spot on the Opposition benches.

The paper touts Saskatchewan's surgical day procedures initiative, which showed some success as long as the Saskatchewan government poured money into it, whereupon it flopped. The program was abandoned in 2014.

The paper's assessment of the threat posed by debt is vastly overblown, and its view of the supposed benefits of public-private partnerships is, shall we say, charming.

Its suggestion the Alberta government needs to legislatively impose salary cuts on health care workers is a recipe for chaos and understaffing -- which, it's important to remember, may suit neoliberal governments with a hidden agenda of creating conditions in which the break-up and privatization of public enterprises can be excused and justified.

Such conclusions are certainly why MacKinnon, a University of Saskatchewan historian and not an economist, was chosen to lead Kenney's panel. She can be counted on to deliver the right conclusions. And it's worth noting that a right-wing economist, Bev Dahlby, approvingly quoted in her paper, now pops up on the panel too. It's almost a surprise Mintz isn't there as well.

Indeed, the paper's bibliography is worth a look, replete with work by Fraser Institute hacks, political advisors to the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper, private health insurance advocates, and the authors’ own previous papers, in additional to more traditional sources.

It is reasonable to conclude the 2017 paper is what Harrigan called the road map, and the UCP government's recent moves are the opening gambits to put the plan into action.

So let's look at the economic reality facing Registered Nurses in Alberta -- a group of workers frequently described as the backbone of health care who appear to be on the UCP hit list.

Alberta RNs' wages have been frozen since 2017, widening a gap that already existed between increases in the average hourly wage for all workers and those for RNs alone. From spring 2010 to this year average wages in Alberta rose about 27 per cent, for RNs only 14 per cent.

The effect of the post-2017 wage freeze was to reduce the real wages paid to RNs by 4.6 per cent with inflation. Indeed, the real wages paid to Alberta RNs today are lower than they were in 2010!

Meanwhile, a nursing shortage is growing in Canada and elsewhere in the world, so Alberta can reasonably expect a serious nursing crisis soon, even without competition for RNs by other jurisdictions willing to pay.

The UCP seems to think that if you give corporations more money they'll come to Alberta. What makes them think this isn't true for nurses, too -- professionals who thanks to their international licensing process now have the mobility to work anywhere in North America?

And these market fundamentalists of the UCP think rolling back nurses' wages, as MacKinnon prescribes, is the way to prevent yet another health-care meltdown?

These are well known facts the nurses' union wanted to put before the arbitrator in their wage-reopener negotiations. You can see why a government bent on attacking public sector wages might not want want such information to be considered.

If you care about heath care, you have to have a bad feeling about how this is all going to end.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: United Nurses of Alberta

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