Alberta nurses’ union seeks formal mediation, ‘one step closer to potential job action’

The United Nurses of Alberta reached an agreement with Alberta Health Services on essential services staffing and will apply for formal mediation in negotiations, the union said Thursday.

“It brings the province one step closer to potential job action by registered nurses,” explained David Harrigan, UNA’s director of labour relations.

“In order to hold a strike vote, or for the employer to decide a lockout vote, the parties have to go through formal mediation. In order to apply for formal mediation, the parties have to have agreed on the essential service levels.”

Read more: ‘Nurses feel let down,’ picket against Alberta government’s proposed rollbacks

In an update posted on the UNA website, the group said it wants to “proceed as quickly as possible to negotiate a new provincial collective agreement with Alberta Health Services and other major public-sector health care employers.”

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However, local presidents made it clear to the bargaining committee “that rollbacks in member pay and long-established provisions of the collective agreement are not acceptable,” the UNA said.

Read more: Alberta nurses call government-proposed 3% salary rollback ‘a kick to the gut’

The nurses’ union will be applying for formal mediation as quickly as possible.

In order “to facilitate the process,” the UNA has withdrawn its proposals for essential services agreements and accepted all AHS’ essential services staffing proposals.

That means the parties have agreed on what services will be provided if and when there is a strike, Harrigan explained.

He said it varies from unit to unit, hospital to hospital, city to city, but on average about one-third of members would be on strike and two-thirds would continue to work, being deemed “essential.”

“It means, in the event of job action, one-third of the workforce is going to be removed,” Harrigan said.

“They’re already very short-staffed. I think it’s very, very significant.”

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The union also cancelled an Aug. 31 meeting with AHS that was set to negotiate essential services agreements at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, since the employer’s proposals on the matter have been accepted.

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“We withdraw our proposals regarding staffing plans and agree to your proposals in their entirety,” an email to AHS’ senior negotiator, and other negotiators for the employer, from Harrigan said. “This applies not just to the Royal Alexandra, but to all of the staffing plans across the province.”

Read more: ‘Critical staffing shortages in hospitals across Alberta’: Notley

“In the past, mediation has been successful,” Harrigan told Global News, “but the sense that we’ve got from the employer and this government is: they’re not interested, they don’t care, and they’re demanding rollbacks despite the fact that they’re short of nurses, nurses have been working 16 hours a day for the last 16 months.

“To be told: ‘We’re going to cut your pay’ is obviously unacceptable.”

Under legislature, the mediator has 14 days to bring the parties to resolution. Often the timeline is extended, Harrigan said.

“It brings the issue of an impasse and a dispute a lot closer.”

He said it also has a deadline, unlike informal mediation.

“This sort of forces the parties to focus and decide whether they want a collective agreement or whether they want chaos.”

“Even if it does not lead to an agreement, it will allow the parties to exercise their strike or lockout rights,” Harrigan said.

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Global News has reached out to AHS and the ministries of health and finance for further comment.

Harrigan said Alberta has a health-care crisis and it’s hard to say whether the two sides will be able to reach an agreement.

“It’s incredibly stressful for nurses right now going to work every day. We polled our members and 75 per cent of our members said that every shift in the last five shifts they worked they were short staffed.

“People just cannot do that anymore.”

Read more: Alberta Health Services invokes emergency staffing provisions to address ‘increasing pressure’

“It’s a bizarre situation because the official line from AHS and the government is: ‘There’s no emergency, there’s no crisis, everything is fine.’ But they wrote us a letter last week saying: ‘There’s an emergency and we’re invoking the emergency provisions in the collective agreement,’ which allows them to force nurses to work overtime, and move them from unit to unit and from one hospital to another hospital,” Harrigan said.

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“We’ve reached an agreement on the essential services… We’re nowhere close to an agreement on a new collective agreement.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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