'When is the strike vote?': Facing wage rollbacks, Alberta nurses consider job action

Alberta nurses could see their wages rolled back in an effort to help the province's finances.

"As we move beyond the peaks of the pandemic and into a more manageable period, we need to continue the important work of getting the province’s finances back on track," said Finance Minister Travis Toews in a statement.

On Tuesday evening , the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) said its employers – Alberta Health Services (AHS) along with Covenant Health, Lamont Health Care Centre and Bethany Group in Camrose – are pushing for a three per cent wage reduction.

Combined with other rollbacks – the elimination of the semi-annual lump sum payments, reduced shift and weekend premiums – nurses could face a total compensation reduction of approximately five per cent, says the union.

“The responses we've had from members feels like being kicked in the gut. (They are asking) When is the strike vote?” said UNA president Heather Smith.

“Many members are saying today, ‘Let's get on with it. Let's speed up the process. And let's get to our ability to legally exercise our right to strike.’ There's certainly some who would suggest that legal or not, we should do it now. But we have our own internal steps in terms of how a strike is authorised by our members.”

According to the province, Alberta nurses make 5.6 per cent more here than in comparable provinces, costing the government about $141 million per year.

"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," said Toews.

“It is simply reflective of our fiscal reality, and one that many sectors in the province have experienced. We are hopeful that AHS and UNA will bargain in good faith."

The numbers cited by Toews are not supported by data from the Canadian Job Bank, which says nurses make an average of $44.90 an hour in Alberta, putting them in the middle of the pack nationwide.

Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams says the government is targeting the wrong group of workers at the wrong time if it expects public support for it’s position.

“There's more support for health-care workers in the health-care system than there is for the government. So they’ve got to tread very carefully here,” said Williams.

“I think most Albertans are hoping for a credible balance to be struck, but to ask for more sacrifices – and from people that have sacrificed so much already – is going to be a much harder sell than it would have been had the government behaved differently up until this point.”

The Alberta Federation of Labour says the government seems to be pushing its way toward a fall season of work stoppages amd labour unrest, and president Gil McGowan says he thinks that’s what the Kenney government wants.

“We think that they're courting a confrontation with nurses and other public sector workers. A confrontation, which will probably boil over sometime late in the fall.

“It could be a strike, or actually could be an unprecedented public sector lockout. That's never happened in this province, but it fits exactly with the way this government does business.”

McGowan adds if the government wants a fight, it will get one.

“If they think that we're going to sit idly by, while they pick the pockets of nurses, and teachers, and other public sector workers who've been working so hard for Albertans, on the front lines during this pandemic, if they think we're gonna sit idly by and let them get away with that, they've got another thing coming.”

The UNA says a strike could still be averted, noting there are several steps in negotiations left to work through before it is in a legal position for its members to walk off the job.

Negotiations between the UNA and the employers’ group resume on Thursday.