NEWS
10/26/2020 15:44 EDT

Why Alberta Hospital Workers Are On Strike And Everything Else You Should Know

Every question you have about the Alberta hospital wildcat strikes, answered.

Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton on Oct. 26, 2020.

Hundreds of Alberta hospital workers walked off the job Monday morning in response to ongoing budget cuts from Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government.

The wildcat strike — meaning it wasn’t planned or organized by the union — is the largest such action in decades, with walkouts reported at two dozen or more hospitals around the province as of Monday afternoon.

Workers say they’re protesting the planned 11,000 health-care job cuts by the Kenney government, while Alberta Health Services has called the strike illegal and called on the labour board to step in.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Who is on strike?

Members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) at over two dozen hospitals and health-care centres across the province walked off the job. 

According to AUPE vice-president Susan Slade, “several hundred” workers are on strike. 

Most of the workers are general support service workers including food service workers, cleaners, porters, clerical staff and maintenance workers. Some licensed practical nurses and health-care aides have also joined the picket lines. 

Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton on Oct. 26, 2020.

In a statement Monday, the United Nurses of Alberta, the union representing registered nurses, said their workers can and will join the picket line in solidarity with striking employees. 

“UNA supports the health care workers who are defending the principle of public health care and opposing the efforts of the Kenney Government to undermine the public health care system and destroy thousands of jobs,” the statement read. 

AUPE represents over 60,000 health-care workers in Alberta, including health-care aides, custodial staff, licensed practical nurses and kitchen staff. 

Why are Alberta health-care workers on strike?

The strike is a response to building tensions between health-care workers and Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government. Earlier this month, the government announced plans to slash and outsource up to 11,000 health-care jobs, largely affecting general support service workers. The government expects to save $600 million from the cuts.

“Given the circumstances that Alberta faces, this approach strikes the right balance between the two unprecedented challenges we face as a province — on one hand the response to the pandemic, and on the other hand the fiscal responsibility we face as Albertans,” Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said at the time.

According to AUPE leadership, that was too much for members, who initiated the job action.

“Anger has been building among members for months,” AUPE president Guy Smith said in a statement Monday. 

In late 2019, the government also passed legislation to terminate its contract with the province’s doctors unilaterally, and Shandro has publicly sparred with doctors throughout the pandemic. 

What is a wildcat strike?

A “wildcat strike,” also known as an unofficial industrial action, is a strike action by unionized workers without union leadership’s authorization, support, or approval. In that sense they are illegal, as they exist outside of bargaining framework. 

The term “wildcat” comes from a group of 19th century U.S. banks, which issued more money than they could afford, and then shut down. One particular bank distributed notes with a picture of a wild cat on them. Thus, the phrase “wildcat” came to mean a risky venture.

WATCH: Alberta cutting 11,000 health-care jobs. Story continues below.

 

During a press conference Monday, Smith confirmed that the strike was not authorized by AUPE, but that the union supports the right of workers to strike.

“From what I understand, it was the shift that was due to start at 7 o’clock, they refused to go in,” Smith said. 

“We believe workers have the right to strike at any time to defend their jobs and defend the services to the people of the province. Alberta Health Services may view it differently but we’ll deal with that when it comes.”

Has this happened before? 

AUPE unionized health-care workers haven’t gone on strike like this in Alberta since 2000, when 10,000 health-care workers when on strike to protest then-premier Ralph Klein’s cuts. . 

The last province-wide wildcat strike in Alberta took place in 2013, when AUPE corrections services officers walked off the job for a week. 

There have been other notable wildcat strikes across Canada in recent decades, including Toronto Pearson Air Canada employees in 2012, B.C. teachers in 2005 and Saskatchewan nurses in 1999. 

Will health services be affected?

In a statement shared on social, Alberta Health Services said they are redeploying non-union staff and managers to backfill the positions of striking workers.

“However, as a direct result of this illegal job action, some surgeries and ambulatory care clinics are being postponed,” the statement said. “Patients will be contacted directly if their appointments are affected. Visitors may be limited at some sites depending on the level of strike action.”

AHS has formally applied to the Alberta Labour Board to order striking workers back to work. A hearing between AHS and AUPE is scheduled for 4 p.m. MST Monday. 

However, Smith said the union is committed to ensuring patient safety during the dispute. He noted that forcing understaffed and overworked employees can be just as dangerous for patient care. 

“Members will do everything in their power to keep Albertans safe. Public safety is why they are taking this action. They know that slashing thousands of front-line jobs during a pandemic is mad. It will lead to lower levels of care and higher costs. It will lead to tragedies,” says Smith.

What are government leaders saying?

Alberta President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance Travis Toews issued a statement Monday condemning the strikes.

“My expectation is that all unions respect the bargaining process, stop putting Albertans’ safety at risk and abide by the law,” he said. “Government’s primary concern is ensuring the health and wellbeing of patients, which has been put at risk this morning.”

On Monday morning, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the strikes were “deeply concerning”, and that they were Kenney’s fault.

“It is Jason Kenney who has caused widespread chaos in our healthcare system — the responsibility for this lays squarely at his feet,” Notley wrote on Twitter. “His illegal acts started before the pandemic and he has persisted in the face of mounting opposition and public concern.”

Several NDP MLAs have joined the picket lines alongside striking workers. 

How will this end? 

Previous wildcat strikes have ended either with an agreement from striking workers, a settlement with employers or through back-to-work legislation and other legal action. 

A federal or provincial government can pass legislation mandating some employees back to work if the type of job they have is deemed essential to issues like health and security. It imposes either binding arbitration on the two parties or a new contract without negotiation. 

We believe workers have the right to strike at any time to defend their jobs and defend the services to the people of the province. Alberta Health Services may view it differently but we’ll deal with that when it comes.AUPE President Guy Smith

There’s also the option of a cease-and-desist order. The 2012 Air Canada wildcat strike was ended by a cease-and-desist order about 12 hours after it began. 

And then there’s the option of giving the workers what they’re asking for — which is stopping the cuts to public health care imposed by the Kenney government.