Government plans war on nurses early in the New Year

AFL Year-end Message

Looking ahead to the New Year, it's clear the Labour movement will have a lot on its plate. New rules on drug and alcohol testing in the workplace. The potential for serious job losses in the forestry industry. And the on-going pressure on working families as wages stagnate and costs for things like utilities, tuition and insurance sky-rocket - all as the result of ill-conceived government policies.

But even though all these concerns are serious, there is another labour issue that looms larger than the rest. And that's the issue of the war the provincial government is planning to wage on Alberta nurses.

"For years now - through round after round of cutbacks, lay-offs and privatization - nurses and other health care workers have gone the extra mile. Their dedication and hard work is the only thing that has kept the system from flying apart at the seams," says Les Steel, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"And how does the government plan to reward nurses for their commitment? By using legislation to force major rollbacks to their conditions of work, that's how. And, for good measure, they're threatening to disband the nurses' union if they decide to protest such heavy-handed action by going on strike. That's a pretty big lump of coal, even by this government's standards."

Alberta's 20,000 registered nurses have been attempting to negotiate a new contract for nearly a year now. Money has never been the issue - the nurses have asked only for a small cost-of-living increase. The real stumbling block has been the demands put on the table by regional health authorities through their bargaining organization, the Provincial Health Authorities of Alberta (PHAA).

The government and the PHAA want the power to force nurses into working more irregular hours and, in many cases, permanent night shifts. They also want to give managers the ability to move nurses from one hospital to another on a whim.

The PHAA set an incredibly hostile tone on the first day of negotiations last January when they warned that if they didn't get their way, they would ask the government to step in and impose a contract - in the same way the Campbell government had done with nurses in B.C. Since that time, the PHAA has stubbornly refused to show any flexibility at the bargaining table - their position today is virtually unchanged from what it was 11 months ago.

"The really frustrating thing about this whole situation is that the key positions staked out by the PHAA - the ones they refuse to budge on - don't make any sense," says Steel. "The nurses are already committed to a fair rotation of shifts, with nurses guaranteed a split of 40 percent days to 60 percent evenings and weekends. And, in the era of SARS, forcing nurses to constantly move from one hospital to another is just downright dangerous. Given how unreasonable their demands are, we're left asking: why are the government and the PHAA being so deliberately provocative? It's starting to look like they want to force the nurses into a strike so they can punish them."

Steel says that if the government thinks it can get away with bullying the nurses and forcing concessions that roll the clock back 25 years, they've got another thing coming. He says Alberta's health care system will be threatened and patient care compromised if the government goes to war with nurses. This kind of chaos won't sit well with the public - especially if the only goal is to settle some kind of political score with the nurses, he says.

"At the same time, the government has to realize that if they go after the nurses, they won't only be facing nurses. They'll be facing off against the entire labour movement and significant sections of the broader public," says Steel.

With that in mind, major unions have already begun meetings aimed at mustering support for the nurses and developing plans and strategies in the event of a strike. Many of Alberta's major unions have already agreed to participate in the support meetings - and many others are expected to get involved in January.

"A government-sponsored war on the nurses will be a disaster for all Albertans," says Steel. "It will undermine the entire health care system and seriously compromise the ability of health care workers to provide top-quality care. That's why we will try to convince members of the government in January that they have to rein in the PHAA. We will also remind them that a negotiated settlement is still within reach - and still in the public's best interests. But if it does come to a strike, we're not going to make it easy for the government. We'll stand shoulder to shoulder with the nurses. And we won't give up until the PHAA backs away from its unreasonable and deliberately provocative positions."

For further information, contact:

Les Steel, President, AFL  at 780-483-3021 or 780-499-4135

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