While their negotiators were demanding wage rollbacks from nurses, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Finance Minister Travis Toews were in full campaign mode, all dressed up to visit a construction site in northern Alberta yesterday. Image: Chris Schwarz/Alberta Government

Alberta Health Services (AHS) returned to the bargaining table with Alberta’s more than 30,000 public sector registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses yesterday for the first time since March 2020 with a new demand for a three per cent across-the-board rollback in wages.

That’s on top of the more than 100 rollbacks to its collective agreement with United Nurses of Alberta* (UNA) that AHS and other public sector heath employers were already seeking.

The impact on the salaries alone for all UNA members employed by AHS, Covenant Health and three smaller publicly funded health care employers would be a five per cent cut, much higher for many nurses with shift leadership, mentoring and public health responsibilities.

AHS negotiators also want the collective agreement’s salary appendix to say minus three per cent effective April 1, 2020 — although they said they wouldn’t ask nurses to pay back “overpayments.”

Other changes demanded by the employers would push working conditions for Alberta nurses in some areas of the collective agreement back to the late 1960s.

“The UNA negotiating committee met with employers participating in ‘provincial negotiations’ which includes AHS, Covenant Health, Lamont Health Care Centre and Bethany Group (Camrose),” the union said in a terse statement on its website yesterday. “Employers now add a three per cent salary rollback to other rollbacks, such as the elimination of the semi-annual lump sum payments, reduced shift and weekend premiums, etc. This represents at least a five per cent compensation reduction.”

A new demand like this made after the parties have already set out their opening bargaining proposals — months ago in the case of negotiations with UNA, which commenced in January 2020 — is generally considered to be evidence of bargaining in bad faith.

That is not changed by a statement published yesterday afternoon by Finance Minister Travis Toews in which he said, “We are hopeful that AHS and UNA will bargain in good faith to ensure health care workers are treated fairly, while being respectful of the province’s fiscal reality.”

And have no doubt that it is the government with which UNA is bargaining, not AHS.

UNA labour relations director David Harrigan told the CBC yesterday that the union will file a bad-faith bargaining complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board.

Whatever the technicalities of the employer-employee-union relationship, the Kenney government is calling the shots for the employers, and the AHS bargaining team made it clear to UNA’s negotiators yesterday the instructions for the additional rollback came from directly the government.

So in the end, the government didn’t even wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to be truly over before it declared war on the province’s RNs.

Even though the government will insist, as Toews did, that this is just a matter of fiscal necessity and “we respect and appreciate the invaluable role they have played in helping the province emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic,” most of the province’s nurses will view it as a declaration of war.

Remember, while Toews’s statement made much of the claim that, “on average, Alberta nurses make 5.6 per cent more than in other comparator provinces” and said “Alberta can no longer afford to be an outlier,” average weekly earnings in Alberta for all occupations are about 15 per cent higher than in comparable provinces.

Alberta cabinet ministers, for example, are currently paid 15 to 22 per cent more than their counterparts in comparable provinces — a statistic that didn’t make it into Toews’s cherry-picked statistics.

So if nurses are already making only five per cent more, as Toews says, arguably Alberta is getting a terrific deal.

Declaring war on this key health care profession at a time where demand for registered nurses is high throughout Canada and worldwide doesn’t seem like a formula for fiscal success — especially if the government’s policy leads to a labour dispute, more retirements, or an exodus of nurses to other provinces, as is already happening with Alberta’s physicians.

Last month, Global News reported that because of the national shortage of nurses, hospitals in Ontario are offering bonuses of up to $75,000 to new nurses from out of province who will sign up to work for them. Global said a shortage of 60,000 nurses throughout Canada is expected by next year.

Indeed, AHS recently set up a provincial task force to discuss the recruitment and retention challenges it faces, especially in rural areas, and to consider measures such as monetary incentives to encourage nurses to remain in Alberta.

Toews’s pleas for nurses to remember the fiscal situation of the province after the pandemic are unlikely to be very persuasive when they remember the sacrifices they made to fight COVID-19 while the UCP squandered billions on corporate handouts and lost $1.3 billion on a bad bet Donald Trump would win the U.S. presidential election.

How the government gets the idea that goading predominantly female health care workers into taking job action will help either the province’s economy or its re-election chances remains a mystery.

Perhaps it thinks it can provoke an inconvenient strike and then try to paint the NDP Opposition as being too close to public-sector unions. Maybe Premier Jason Kenney’s political advisors haven’t made a connection between the nurses they purport to admire and the unions they obviously hate. Or maybe they just don’t have a clue in a carload.

Whatever it is, this doesn’t seem like a formula for the best summer ever, let alone whatever is supposed to happen in the fall!

*Full disclosure: As many readers of this blog know, I am an employee of United Nurses of Alberta. As it happens, I’m on vacation right now, so I found out about this the same way as almost everyone else — when I saw the first tweets yesterday afternoon on Twitter. DJC

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: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...