Alberta nurses took part in simultaneous information pickets across the province on Wednesday in an effort to amplify their concerns that understaffing, closed hospital beds and salary rollbacks will impact patient care.
The day of action came as the province attempts to balance its finances with proposed cuts to nurses’ salaries amidst the turmoil of ongoing waves of COVID-19, and demonstrations were planned at more than 25 works sites across Alberta.
The United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), which represents about 30,000 health-care workers across the province, encouraged its members, their coworkers and the public to attend during breaks and time off.
Members of other health-care unions including the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the Canadian Union of Public Employees also joined to show support.
Over honking horns and amid waving flags in front of Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary, Karen Craik, the UNA’s secretary-treasurer, said the pickets were planned to send a message to the provincial government about its proposed rollbacks and layoffs.
“That’s showing disrespect for the health-care workers and the nurses that have got us through this pandemic,” she said.
The nurse’s union is also critical of the province’s plan to discontinue contact tracing, along with mandatory isolation for positive cases, on Aug. 16.
“The pandemic is not over, [and] just because the government chooses to not trace or track anymore does not mean the pandemic is over,” Craik said.
‘The system is in dire straits’
In a written statement, UNA said Alberta’s nurses are exhausted, overworked and in need of fairness in the workplace.
“Beds are closing because hospitals are short of nurses. This is a result of the pressure on the system caused by pandemic and a long history of understaffing nursing positions,” the UNA said.
“The rollbacks proposed by the government are an insult to nurses and won’t help Alberta recruit and keep health-care workers, which is what is needed most to keep hospital beds open.”
Kevin Champagne, the local president with the UNA, told CBC News during the demonstration at Foothills Medical Centre that workers are protesting to advocate for the public health-care system.
“We want to let everyone know that the system is in dire straits from the decisions of this government,” he said.
“There is not a nurse on this line that’s saying, ‘Pay me more.’ We’re all out here saying, ‘We want resources so we can deliver the care that’s expected of us.’ “
Demonstrations were also planned in municipalities that include Brooks, Calgary, Camrose, Drayton Valley, Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Jasper, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Stony Plain, Ponoka, Westlock and Whitecourt.
Ongoing labour negotiations
The province and the UNA started collective bargaining in January 2020.
In July, Alberta Health Services asked for a three per cent pay cut as part of ongoing labour negotiations.
The UNA said that in addition to previous rollback asks, the pay cut would reduce compensation by five per cent.
Nurses told CBC News last month that after experiencing the pandemic at its worst, the rollback amounted to a “huge slap in the face.”
Some said they were seeking employment outside of Alberta.
“I’ve never seen morale this low,” said emergency room registered nurse Jessica McGrath. “We don’t have the same spirit that we used to.”
Government says it is ‘truly appreciative’ of health-care workers
In response to the day of action, Alberta’s Finance Minister Travis Toews said the Alberta government is “truly appreciative” of the hard work and dedication that health-care professionals have shown during the pandemic.
The UCP respects the rights of all Abertans to express opinions on matters important to them, he said Wednesday in a statement, and is committed to standing up for the health-care system.
“That’s why we have been urging both Alberta Health Services (AHS) and UNA to work towards a new collective agreement that will bring long-term labour stability to the health care system,” Toews said.
“Last week, AHS proposed informal mediation to UNA in an attempt to move towards a settlement agreement.
“Unfortunately, union leadership declined the offer … we are hopeful that informal mediation would allow the two parties to work collaboratively towards a deal.”
Minister’s statement made ‘in error,’ union says
However, UNA said the minister’s statement was made “in error,” writing that Alberta Health Service chose not to apply for informal mediation in negotiations.
“Under Alberta labour law, either party in collective bargaining may apply for informal mediation,” UNA wrote.
“The UNA bargaining committee indicated to AHS negotiators they were free to apply if they wished and UNA would not object or view it as a provocation in negotiations. AHS chose not to do so.”
On Aug. 5, UNA wrote on its website that “employers [had] suggested ‘informal’ mediation. UNA rejected as we do not believe this will add value to the process.”
Danielle Larivee, UNA’s vice-president, wrote in an email that the union had rejected joint application as “we didn’t feel that it would be likely to bring us close to either an acceptable contract or job action.”
“But we let AHS know they were welcome to apply if they liked and we would not object — they have chosen not to,” she said. “The labour relations code says either or both may apply.”
CBC News has reached out to the minister’s office for additional comment.
Finance minister cites ‘$93-billion debt’
Champagne also addressed Toews’ statement on Wednesday, and said the government’s words of appreciation felt hollow in the context of health-care cuts.
“If you tell us you respect us [and] you call us heroes, come to the bargaining table with a meaningful conversation,” he said.
“Don’t bring more regressive cuts six months, a year into bargaining. Most people try to bargain closer together, not to widen the gap.”
In addition to mediation, Toews also addressed Alberta’s debt as is a “fiscal reality” that requires “a settlement that works for everyone.”
“The reality is that Alberta spends more money per person on health care than other large provinces, and this can’t continue,” he said.
“We are facing a $93-billion debt, and we spend more than half of the province’s operating budget on public sector compensation. We must continue to find efficiencies across the public sector — it’s an essential piece to restoring fiscal health and ensuring sustainable public services.”