July 5th, 2020

Opinion: Another nurses strike brewing?

By Medicine Hat News Opinion on February 14, 2020.

Most people know that open flame and gunpowder is a combination that can have explosive results, so they seek to avoid such situations.

But in a situation the head of the United Nurses of Alberta calls “a powder keg,” the UCP government is playing with fire by making contract demands that could push Alberta’s nurses toward the sector’s first strike in 32 years.

UNA president Heather Smith acknowledges the “S” word is being bandied about. While noting that any such decision will be up to the rank-and-file members, “… I do know that it is a subject of a lot of conversations in workplaces,” she told the Canadian Press.

Smith suggested the bargaining circumstances are similar to the strike year of 1988.

“The last time I saw the magnitude of rollbacks tabled by an employer with us was in fact the 1988 round of bargaining,” Smith said.

In this round of bargaining, the UNA says the Alberta government is proposing no wage increases over the next four years, as well as reductions to overtime, holiday and premium pay. The proposal also calls for reductions in worker scheduling rights and benefits, including eliminating designated rest days for part-time workers.

The UNA, representing 29,000 nurses, is countering with two-per-cent wage increases in each of the first two years, among other changes.

The province appears to be basing its contract demands on recommendations from an Ernst & Young report looking at ways to improve efficiency in Alberta’s health-delivery system. The report points out that registered nurses in the province earn about 7% more than the Canadian average, and that by working extra shifts and earning premium pay, they are able to earn substantially more. But Smith notes that salaries in many professions in Alberta are higher than the national average.

The UCP government has given Alberta Health Services until mid-May to respond with a plan to implement the recommendations.

Smith admits there remains work to be done in the area of part-time workers, and Health Minister Tyler Shandro acknowledges there’s work to do from the province’s end as well. You can bet neither side wants the contract wrangling to result in a strike, and, of course, the public doesn’t want a strike either, since ordinary citizens will feel the fallout of a walkout by nurses, too.

In 1988, nurses walked off the job on Jan. 25 in spite of the fact that it was an illegal strike because, after the previous hospital strike in 1982, the province had removed the legal right of hospital nurses to take strike action.

That didn’t stop the nurses from striking for 19 days, however, and by the time they returned on Feb. 13, they had racked up more than $425,000 in fines for criminal contempt of court. The fines were paid with the help of donations from individuals and other unions.

The UNA website states: “The 1988 strike set the stage for UNA to make significant gains for nurses in the 1990 contract negotiations. This strike helped define UNA members as a force that would not hesitate take a stand for positive change in our health-care system.”

Let’s hope this present round of bargaining between the nurses and the provincial government doesn’t lead to strike action. Let’s hope the nurses and the government can work things out to the satisfaction of both sides so our frontline health-care providers are treated fairly and the province is able to trim legitimate inefficiencies from the system.

If that can be accomplished, it will be a win-win-win situation, with Albertans sharing in the positive outcome. A strike, on the other hand, would be a lose-lose-lose scenario. It would hurt everyone involved, including ordinary Albertans who count on the health-care system to provide the care they need when they need it.

–Lethbridge Herald

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