How smart are the suits at silly hall? Just wise enough to play stupid! In the ambulance labour war it's really all the pinstripes have to do.

The suits of silly hall are often silly, but not as often stupid.

They know they don't have to actually negotiate with our world-class paramedics any more than they wish. And they don't.

They know the game, they know the rules and they know the city can't lose, no matter how boneheaded they act.

In fact, they can take a make-believe stand with the paramedics and spin a story about how they're holding the line and cast themselves as principled, fearless guardians of the public purse.

But it's all sizzle and no steak.

The city acts as it does because they know how all the cards will be dealt.

They play their role, they know the paramedics won't suck it up and take chump change in a hotly inflated economy. They know the paramedics will come to the end of the road and vote for a strike.

But it's a strike vote for a strike existing only in theory, but not in practice.

The union takes the vote, will give strike notice and the province will step into the fray, declare an emergency and everything stops with the hit of the Easy Button. The province names an arbitrator who imposes a deal.

And what happens if the provincially appointed arbitrator hands down something better and therefore costlier than the city offers, as is very likely?

The city pinstripes will just shrug their shoulders. Oh well, it's not our fault the paramedics get what they're getting, it's the arbitrator's fault, the all-powerful one named by the province.

And, here's the best part, since it's the provincial arbitrator's fault ... golly gee, turn pockets inside out here ... we need more money to pay the paramedics. We don't have the cash in our budget. Oh me, oh my, the province will have to pony up the loonies.

Dear us, dear us, this is all so out of our control. Victim, victim.

Of course, the province could do the washing-of-hands routine and let the strike go ahead but, if anything happens, if some poor soul dies and somebody kicks up a stink about the response time of the ambulance or the quality of the crew, the city can say, yes this is beautiful, it's the province's fault because they could have declared an emergency.

And, the logic is so stunning, the city cooks up some phony baloney back-up service, a Plan B the province can't possibly accept.

With a normal level of ambulances on duty and lots of calls and units tied up at overcrowded hospitals there are yellow alerts.

With sub-par service ...

"They will have yellow alerts and red alerts in the first hour," says Bruce Robb, the paramedic union president who has been the definition of mild-mannered throughout this city's version of water torture.

The headline writers would be working overtime.

But, of course, it's not happening. The province won't hitch their wagon to some Band-Aid solution.

Just to make sure the public is completely spun into senselessness and confusion, AFTER the paramedics vote 354-4 for a strike, the city then offers last-minute voluntary arbitration as if to say, gee willakers, we tried our darndest to stop a strike.

Of course, they only offer this ersatz olive branch once the paramedics already decide on their final stand.

So strike notice could be as early as Monday. Sometime in the 72 hours following the notice the province will force the paramedics to stay on the job and both sides will go to binding arbitration.

Bruce and his people know the script as well as anybody.

It is all more than a bit surreal. Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour paints the picture in a letter to Iris Evans, the province's minister responsible for labour.

"If the City of Calgary is assured you will instantly step in to prohibit strike action by the paramedics, they have little reason to alter bargaining to a more realistic position since they will not be facing any consequences."


And does the city care if our world-class paramedics are unhappy, a fact sure to be reflected in how many stay on in a boom economy with high inflation? Does the city really wonder why their mouthpieces couldn't bring two sides in a marble game together? No worries. The city can always pass the buck. And do.

At least, the paramedics are allowed to vent in a vote.

"It's important our members get to say how angry they are," says Bruce.

Hopefully, at least the soon-to-be-appointed arbitrator will be listening.

The Calgary Sun, Page 5, Sat July 21 2007
Byline: Rick Bell

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