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In the middle of its war on doctors, Alberta's UCP picks a fight with nurses too

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Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews. Image: David J. Climenhaga

It seemed crazy for the United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney to pick a fight with the province's doctors in the middle of a pandemic.

Still, if you believe the Roman proverb that fortune favours the brave and look at the world from Kenney's ideological perspective, you can understand why he might have thought a bold attack on the most expensive component in the public health-care system might be worth the risk.

If the docs could be persuaded there was no hope the government would yield -- and also be convinced there was something in it for them if they were to give up and go with the flow -- the UCP might just achieve the dream of the neoliberal right to hole Canadian public health insurance below the waterline.

But you'll notice the Romans didn't say, "Fortune favours the foolhardy" -- because history suggests pretty strongly she doesn't.

Like doctors, nurses are medical professionals on the front lines of health care. Unlike doctors, they tend to be salaried employees of large health-care organizations. There's no credible case to be made that privatizing public health care will somehow work in their interest.

So while most doctors will defend the obvious merits of public health care, there will always be a few who can be wedged away from the Alberta Medical Association's bargaining positions with the promise of big bucks from themselves. That isn't going to work as well with nurses, because they're always going to be wage slaves, just like the rest of us.

So, what's leading the Kenney government to flirt with the idea of starting a war on nurses at the same time as it's prosecuting a war on docs? Surely even Tyler Shandro, Kenney's intemperate health minister, isn't that dumb!

That presumably explains why it was Finance Minister Travis Toews who fired off an intemperate press release last week attacking the nurses' union for refusing to go along with the government's plan to put off contract negotiations with health-care unions until the COVID-19 crisis has passed and the UCP could get back to its plan to lay off nurses and other unionized health-care workers without political consequences.

"AHS offered job security during the pandemic in exchange for a pause in negotiations until March 31, 2021," Toews said in his petulant press release, omitting to note why this isn't a very good deal from the nurses' perspective.

"It is regrettable that UNA’s union leadership has decided to play games in the media around this common sense offer to a pause bargaining (sic)," he huffed. 

"UNA's overreaching and disingenuous demand for indefinite job security is a shameful effort to take advantage of a health crisis," Toews continued, misrepresenting the union's position that there should be no layoffs during the pandemic when everyone's priority ought to be the health of Albertans and accusing the union of dishonesty for taking a completely straightforward position.

It shouldn't require Dale Carnegie to explain to Toews why that's no way to win friends and influence people.

"By insulting Alberta nurses and refusing to postpone a government plan to lay off at least 750 nurses until after a new collective agreement is in place, Mr. Toews is generating considerable uncertainty in the health-care system," UNA labour relations director David Harrigan said in the union's response to the minister's unexpected broadside.

"To do this on the day Alberta reported its highest number of new COVID-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic is almost incomprehensible," he added.

The layoff plan cited by Harrigan is not just speculation, by the way, or NDP propaganda, as the government's "issues managers" are likely to pretend.

In November 2019, Alberta Health Services clearly indicated to United Nurses of Alberta its intention to lay off 750 registered nurses as a first step of a planned reorganization, with more to follow.

Then came the coronavirus, a genuine public health-care crisis, and practical politics demanded the plan be put on hold.

This explains why the government is now so anxious to put bargaining for new contracts with all of its major health care unions onto the back burner: Because it knows that in the midst of a pandemic the public would be horrified to be reminded of what it has in mind, and it understands that under the law of the land it will be required to disclose the details of its plans in bargaining.

It doesn't fully explain Toews's verbal temper tantrum, which suggests the finance minister either doesn't understand or care how collective bargaining is required by law to work.

But as a former union president of my acquaintance, now retired from the fray, put it: "The nurses should send the finance minister a thank you note. Misinformation allows informed clarification."

"Those guys won't bargain well," he added. "There's hardly anyone in the UCP with any experience in that world."

Those that do know the drill, moreover, like Labour Minister Jason Copping, are unlikely to be paid much heed.

What will the UCP do next if its bluff doesn't work? Recent history suggests something heavy handed -- more unconstitutional legislation, perhaps.

The legislature is scheduled to meet again on October 20. So keep an eye on the order paper.

After more than a year in power, the UCP doesn't have a lot of successes to point to. But while they can hardly be dizzy with success as they'd like us to believe, they can still be dizzy with excess, so brace is yourselves for more pandemic pandemonium. 

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: David J. Climenhaga

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