Alberta unions say public health layoffs are the latest attack on labour movement

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Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro pictured in May 2020. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Union leaders in Alberta say the United Conservative Party's recent announcement that it intends to lay off up to 11,000 public health workers is just the latest in a string of attacks by a government intent on stunting the labour movement.

On Tuesday morning, Alberta's health minister outlined a restructuring plan dependent on laying off up to 11,000 public health-care workers, including lab technicians and those working in laundry, food and nutrition, and environmental services, including cleaners. The government says it will outsource those jobs to private contractors with the intent of reducing its health-care operating costs.

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, pointed out that the workers who will be laid off are those who have had to bear the brunt of additional cleaning and sanitization duties in hospitals.

"They're tired," he said. "They're working short[-handed]. They're working harder. They're dedicated to their work, and now they've been told that they're possibly going to be without a job."

Trudy Thomson, the vice-president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) which represents lab technicians, said the threat of looming cuts burden workers with a great deal of uncertainty. It's something she experienced herself once during her 40-year career as a lab technologist, when she once took a buyout amid job cuts.

"It decimates a workplace," she said.

Labs in Alberta have already been privatized, she said, then brought into a single provincial entity, and are now going to flip to private once more.

"We've been there, done this. We're redoing things that have already been done, tried and didn't work," she said.

Smith said AUPE has been preparing its members for strike for months now, and said if the workers implicated in this announcement walk off the job, they have the union's full support.

Roughly 9,000 of AUPE's members' jobs are at risk, said Smith, consisting of laundry, food, and cleaning service workers. CUPE Alberta said it too represents between 500 and 1,000 of the affected workers in these areas. The HSAA said up to 2,000 lab worker jobs could be axed.

Thomson said she believes the provincial government is aiming to divide workers and unions against each other by treating different groups of workers differently. She pointed out that the government picks and chooses who it calls front-line workers, for instance.

The Alberta government said it was excluding front-line workers from the layoffs, highlighting that nurses' jobs were protected for now. (Shandro did state in the press conference that there may be other job reductions in the future through attrition).

Thomson wondered why lab workers weren't considered front-line workers, when COVID-19 screening questionnaires very clearly ask if an individual works in a lab.

"I think that makes you a front-line worker, hands down," she said, adding that affected AUPE members are also working on the front lines.

"Without those services, hospitals can’t survive."

The spokesperson for Alberta's ministry of health did not immediately respond to questions from rabble.ca.

Smith said a lot is at stake for the labour movement in Alberta right now, and these layoffs add fuel to an already hot fire.

"We've seen from this government from a number of different angles, full frontal attacks on unions and unionized workers' rights," he said, referencing provincial bills 1 and 32.

Bill 1, which passed into law in May as the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, was roundly condemned by union leaders in Alberta and across Canada because it prohibits any protest, blockade, or picket from occurring at the site of what the province deems "essential infrastructure." Unions say this could easily be used as a tool to suppress protest and picket lines, two essential tools in labour's toolbox.

Bill 32 also seeks to limit where and how workers specifically are allowed to picket during a strike or lockout, preventing them from delaying or preventing anyone from crossing a picket line and requiring they have labour relations board permission to picket at a secondary site.

Lou Arab, a spokesperson for CUPE Alberta, said the layoffs are absolutely a challenge to the labour movement in Alberta.

"But I have to say, it's not the only challenge we're facing. When it comes to this government, it's just today's bullshit," he said. 

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Thomson.

Union leadership meeting daily  

All three unions confirmed that they are meeting on a near-daily basis in the wake of the layoffs announcement, and have been meeting much more frequently for close to a year now.

"We've always tried to work together with the other unions. The urgency of having Jason Kenney and the UCP in power has made that an even … more of a necessity that we work together as much as possible," said Arab.

Thomson said there have been more phone calls and more conversations with labour movement stakeholders even outside of unions.

"When there is a more imminent threat, people come together in a different way," she said.

Given this provincial government's moves towards privatizing health care and education, Smith said public sector unions have been working very closely for the past year to build solidarity, mutual support, and keep open lines of communication.

"They're not facing the kind of cuts we are, and they haven't done the groundwork that we have, but I think now they're coming to the realization that they may have no other option either than to prepare their members for strike," said Smith.

Smith said that the current situation between government, unions and workers is very volatile, adding it could easily produce a massive confrontation between unions and government.

"We're all on the same page as much as possible. That level of cooperation and working together ... I've been around a long time. I don't think I've seen it as solidified as it is now," said Smith.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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