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Alberta government's plan to lay off 11,000 public sector health workers sparks wildcat walkouts at 45 health facilities

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Guy Smith, president of the AUPE, addresses the media outside of the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton (Image: Courtesy of ProgressReport.ca)

Infuriated at the Kenney government's determination to lay off 11,000 public sector health-care workers and privatize their jobs, members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees walked off the job in a province-wide wildcat strike yesterday morning.

Last night, the Alberta Labour Relations Board ruled the work stoppage to be an illegal strike and ordered the employees back to work.

Exactly how many AUPE members were involved in the walkouts was not clear, although wildcat strikes by the union's health-care support workers, health-care aides and licensed practical nurses took place at 45 health-care facilities throughout the province.

While strikers were joined by members of other unions from the same worksites on their impromptu picket lines, there is no evidence of other health-care workers striking in sympathy -- although many vowed to refuse to do strikers' work. In addition, at some sites AUPE members legally picketed on breaks but didn't leave their jobs.

"Nursing-care 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," said AUPE president Guy Smith. "By constantly short-staffing public health care, this government is pushing our members to the breaking point exactly when Albertans need them most."

For their part, Alberta Health Services officials immediately warned strikers of harsh retribution: "Staff who choose to participate in illegal job action will be subject to disciplinary action and will not be granted amnesty," said a memo to employees early in the day. Of course, such threats may have less impact on employees who face being laid off and having their jobs contracted out to private companies.

It could quickly become difficult to maintain infection control measures in many facilities if the strikes continue or escalate.

Nor was it obvious last night, despite the labour board's ruling, what would happen next. The ruling was sent to the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench so it can be enforced with a contempt of court if workers defy the order.

Finance Minister Travis Toews, who with Premier Jason Kenney in self-isolation for exposure to COVID-19 appears to be the government's lead spokesperson on the file, issued a triumphal statement in which he vowed not to tolerate illegal strike activity.

AHS labour relations officials have been aware for weeks of the potential for a spontaneous reaction to the government's massive restructuring of health care among the hardest-hit workers during the continuing coronavirus pandemic. They must have alerted the government to their fears.

Nevertheless, the government's initial reaction yesterday offered little evidence the UCP had much of a plan about how to respond.

After demonstrations started taking place outside hospitals around 7 a.m., nothing at all was heard from Health Minister Tyler Shandro. Perhaps he was unprepared to defend the government's view that health-care support workers are not essential, except when the government decides they are.

A previously announced news conference by Labour Minister Jason Copping and "Jobs, Economy and Innovation" Minister Doug Schweitzer, recently demoted from the important justice portfolio, attracted reporters seeking comment on the unfolding strikes.

The key message of their announcement seemed to be that a few low-wage jobs would be closed to temporary foreign workers for a spell as a response to Alberta's high unemployment rate.

The rattled-looking duo quickly read their scripts, dodged questions from a few journalists asking about the wildcat strikes, and pulled the plug on the virtual news conference as quickly as decently possible. Wherever possible, they referred questions to a mid-day statement expected from Toews.

In the event, when Toews's first statement of the day was published, it echoed the AHS threats and repeated UCP talking points about why the government wants to make big cuts to health-care spending.

"My expectation is that all unions respect the bargaining process, stop putting Albertans' safety at risk and abide by the law," he concluded, apparently forgetting that the wildcat strikes had essentially nothing to do with bargaining and everything to do with the government's arbitrary plan to eliminate 11,000 jobs and contract the work out to for-profit companies.

Still, this was an ironic position to take for a government prepared to use legislation to derail the collective bargaining process if it looks as if the results will not be to its liking.

Yesterday, the government made much of the fact the job action took place in the middle of a pandemic -- notwithstanding the fact it's been fighting with almost every health-care employee group, including physicians, throughout the pandemic.

Alberta breaks 500 daily COVID cases

Meanwhile, over the weekend, Alberta broke the 500 barrier -- 500 cases of COVID-19 a day, that is.

It's probably only a matter of days now before we surpass 1,000 new cases every day.

Less than a week ago, UCP media cheerleaders were proclaiming that having concluded COVID-19 is under control, wishfully as it turns out, Premier Jason Kenney was surging ahead with economic action.

With the impact of the government's "near normal" school reopening and a rule-free Thanksgiving weekend now being fully felt, the only thing that appears to be surging is COVID-19.

Nevertheless, Kenney has continued to insist on his determination to keep the province's businesses wide open.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw yesterday ordered a 15-person limit on some gatherings in Edmonton and Calgary. However, that doesn't apply to restaurants, theatres, religious services, weddings or funerals. So don't expect it to do much good.

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Courtesy of TheProgressReport.ca

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