Facing a proposed three per cent rollback in pay, members of the United Nurses of Alberta are pushing their leadership for strike action, president Heather Smith said Wednesday.
Smith said the UNA’s goal is to come to a settlement but the latest proposed collective agreement from employers including Alberta Health Services had many members questioning why the government shifted from its previous proposal of a wage freeze.
“Our members are increasingly angry, they are exhausted, and this is sort of a tipping point in terms of insults,” said Smith.
The UNA is set to return to the negotiating table Thursday but if that fails, both parties would need to come to an essential services agreement in the event of a strike or a lockout, undergo mediation, a 14-day “cooling off” period, and then take a strike vote.
Smith said many members want the negotiating committee to speed up the process.
A Tuesday statement from the UNA notes the proposal from representatives for AHS, Covenant Health, Lamont Health Care Centre and the Bethany Group also includes changes such as the elimination of semi-annual lump sum payments and reduced shift and weekend premiums, altogether representing at least a five per cent compensation reduction.
The union, which represents more than 30,000 nurses, said the employer side did return to current overtime provisions, as well as transportation and education allowances.
Kassandra Kitz, press secretary to Finance Minister Travis Toews, said in a statement Wednesday Alberta’s high debt and deficits, compounded by COVID-19, the oil price crash and recession, mean it needs to either reduce compensation or reduce public sector jobs.
“That’s why we’re offering nurses job security in exchange for a modest decrease in compensation — it’s the most fair and reasonable offer.”
In a Tuesday evening statement, Toews said on average, Alberta nurses make 5.6 per cent more than in other comparator provinces, based on total compensation as of 2020.
“The need to bring wages in line with other large provinces does not diminish our deep respect for the exceptional work and dedication of public sector workers. It is simply reflective of our fiscal reality, and one that many sectors in the province have experienced.”
Smith said it’s true nurses are paid more in Alberta, but countered that average weekly earnings for all occupations are 15 per cent higher in this province than others.
The UNA began bargaining for a new collective agreement in January 2020. During the COVID-19 pandemic the government repeatedly called for a delay in negotiating but the union refused, saying last year the government would not agree to cease rollbacks nor commit to cutting any positions through attrition during COVID-19.
NDP Opposition labour critic Christina Gray called the latest proposal “shameful” Wednesday.
“This government has never fully understood what our frontline workers have gone through — the stress, the short staffing and what they’ve helped carry our province through, and I know that front-line nurses and other public sector workers are feeling anything but thanked by this government with this type of aggressive bargaining tactic,” said Gray.
She added the government appears to be trying to counter financial losses such as the $1.3 billion investment lost on the now-cancelled Keystone XL pipeline project.
“Now they want frontline workers — mostly women — to pay for those,” said Gray.
Sandra Azocar, executive director of advocacy group Friends of Medicare, said in a statement the pandemic has illustrated the value of front-line workers to the health care system.
“Now that we’re finally seeing this pandemic ease up, the government has decided to repay nurses’ sacrifice by wasting no time in slashing their wages,” said Azocar.
In March the union said AHS had proposed a deal including a four-year wage freeze, reductions in overtime rates and decreases to night hour premiums.