02/16/2012 02:15 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta resolves illegal hospital workers' strike with binding arbitration

EDMONTON - A one-day illegal strike by hospital workers that led to confusion, delays, and about 70 cancelled surgeries across Alberta was resolved late Thursday afternoon.

Chris Mazurkewich of Alberta Health Services said they agreed to binding arbitration with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the 22,000 staffers who perform the non-medical jobs at hospitals and health centres.

"AUPE has agreed to cease all wildcat strike activities at hospitals and other care sites," Mazurkewich, the chief operating officer of Alberta Health Services, told reporters.

"We will immediately begin rescheduling surgeries and diagnostic tests, and patients will be contacted personally as soon as possible."

He said the workers were to be back on the job Thursday night, that bargaining would begin next week and that no one who walked the line will be reprimanded or punished.

There were between 600 and 800 workers who took part in the job action at about 20 health facilities. Most of them were in Edmonton, but workers also left their posts in Calgary and in some smaller centres.

The walkout began early Thursday, when staff at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital hit the picket line.

Union spokesman Mark Wells said word spread quickly on the Internet and Twitter, leading to similar walkouts that continued through the morning and into the early afternoon.

Along with cancelled surgeries, health officials said other hospital functions were disrupted. Noon-time food service for patients was delayed.

Support staff include those who deliver meals, clean operating rooms, sterilize instruments, handle clerical duties and provide security.

The workers said they walked out to protest what they called an insulting contract offer.

"I've been there for 40 years and I still make under $20 an hour," said Al Pelletier, a custodian at the Royal Alexandra.

"We're not getting anywhere with Alberta Health Services. They don't respect us. They tell us we're an important part of health care, but yet they treat us like slaves."

The union recently walked away from mediated talks after Alberta Health Services tabled an offer of a two-per-cent lump-sum payment for 2011, a two-per-cent increase for 2012 and a cost of living increase for 2013.

Wells said that was "the spark in the tinder box" because the offer was worse than the one the workers had already rejected.

Alberta Health Services says the deal was different but not inferior.

Premier Alison Redford, speaking to reporters prior to the settlement, said: "I was disappointed to see (the strike action).

"I'm very concerned to see how that impacts patients' safety. I don't really think that's the most constructive way to deal with issues that have arisen."

Wells said the walkout at the Royal Alexandra caught the union by surprise as well, but it fully supports the workers.

Opposition Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, who is also an emergency room doctor at the Royal Alexandra, met with workers on the lines to show support.

"Literally they clean blood, vomit and excrement off the floors," Sherman later told reporters.

"They feed the people in the hospitals, they do all the paperwork. They're the unit clerks, the cleaning staff.

"They're the lowest paid staff, and I can't believe the government won't give them a measly three per cent."

NDP Leader Brian Mason said when hourly wages are taken into account, the new offer amounts to a boost of 32 cents an hour.

"They do the hardest work in our hospitals. They do the heavy lifting, the menial jobs, the jobs nobody else wants to do," said Mason.

"They're mostly women. Many of them are immigrants raising families. And they earn about half the average weekly wage in Alberta."

"They're treated with a lack of dignity that I think we should be ashamed of."

Alberta Health Services is an arm of the Health Department and is in charge of delivering front-line care.