‘Anger has been building’: Alberta health-care workers walk off job to protest cuts

EDMONTON - Hospital and other health-care workers across Alberta walked off the job Monday to protest recent cuts by the United Conservative government during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said in a release that members are trying to defend jobs and protect the public health-care system.

“Anger has been building among members for months,” said Smith. ”The recent announcement by Health Minister Tyler Shandro of 11,000 jobs being cut in the middle of a global deadly pandemic was the last straw for them.“

Earlier this month, Shandro announced the government would be cutting up to 11,000 health jobs to save money during the pandemic, but he said nurses and front-line clinical staff would not be affected. Some of the cuts are to come from further contracting out of laundry and lab services.

Shandro’s office declined to comment on the walkouts. But Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a statement that he’s aware of “a number of illegal strikes taking place in hospitals and health-care settings across the province.”

The government’s primary concern, he said, is ensuring the health and well-being of patients.

“Alberta Health Services is taking immediate action with the Alberta Labour Relations Board (to) end this illegal activity,” said Toews. “Those involved in this illegal action will be held accountable.

“My expectation is that all unions respect the bargaining process, stop putting Albertans’ safety at risk and abide by the law.”

The labour relations board said a hearing was to be held this afternoon.

AHS, which delivers health care in the province, said it’s also responding to the walkouts in their facilities.

“We are doing all we can to address any interruptions to patient care caused by this illegal job action,” said a statement. “Our focus is on ensuring patients continue to receive the care and treatment they need.

“AHS is enacting contingency plans to redeploy non-union staff, including managers, wherever possible to cover for missing staff.”

A spokesman later said 157 non-emergency surgeries — the majority in Edmonton — were postponed Monday due to the walkouts. They were in addition to elective surgeries postponed in Edmonton late last week due to COVID-19.

The province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said she didn’t know how the walkouts would affect the health-care system, since there are already staffing shortages due to COVID-19 and the respiratory virus season.

“If there are impacts on staffing for any other reason, whether it’s the strikes or any other reason, that could lead to changes in the ability of services to be offered,” she said

“But I know that Alberta Health Services is working very hard to ensure that COVID precautions are in place and that continues whether or not they have to adjust the services that are provided.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the “wildcat strikes” across Alberta are deeply concerning.

“Like all Albertans, our caucus believes patient safety must always be the top priority,” she said in a statement.

Notley added, however, that the government’s proposal to privatize the work of 11,000 workers in the middle of a pandemic will result in poorer care for Albertans.

“This reckless plan must stop,” she said.

The AUPE said nursing care and support workers decided Monday there was no other option than walkouts to address their concerns.

“This government is pushing our members to the breaking point exactly when Albertans need them most,” said Smith.

The union represents about 58,000 health-care workers, although it wasn’t clear how many have walked off the job. There were reports of picketing outside the Royal Alexandra Hospital and University of Alberta in Edmonton, Foothills Hospital and the South Health Campus in Calgary, as well as at many other facilities across the province.

Smith said the workers are committed to making sure patients remain safe.

The Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents 27,000 health-care professionals, and the United Nurses of Alberta said in separate statements that their members won’t do the work of other union members.

“HSAA supports AUPE workers who are standing up against (Premier Jason) Kenney’s health-care cuts,” said Mike Parker, president of the health sciences association.

“Health-care workers have been working tirelessly to keep Albertans safe and they have been rewarded with threats to their jobs by a government that is hell-bent on ripping apart our public health-care system. The blame for any disruption to patient care that may occur today needs to land squarely at the feet of Jason Kenney and the UCP.”

The Alberta Federation of Labour and its affiliated unions said they will also join picket lines across the province to show their support for striking health-care workers.

The workers have also received support from the Alberta Teachers Association and Friends of Medicare.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2020.

— With files from Lauren Krugel in Calgary

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