Written by Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University
Albertans woke up on Monday October 26 to news that support workers at one of the province’s busiest hospitals were refusing to start their shifts and were striking outside the main doors. Soon word spread that almost 1000 workers at up to 45 health facilities in 33 Alberta municipalities had walked out. The workers were members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and perform a range of support services such as laundry, food preparation, janitorial services and other important functions that keep facilities operating.
Energy built through the day, with labour leaders and members of other unions walking the picket line in solidarity. The workers’ collective agreement has expired and negotiations are ongoing, but the union was not yet in a legal strike position. Late Monday night, the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) declared the strike illegal and ordered striking workers back to work. Here is the decision.
In Alberta, illegal strikes face significant penalties, including fines against the union of $1,000 per day, fines against individual workers, suspension of union dues for up to six months, and possible contempt of court charges. Early Tuesday morning, AUPE announced that all workers had returned to work.
Despite its short duration, this wildcat strike is likely just the beginning of worker action in response to provincial government cuts to health care, so there is value in looking more closely at the strike.
The strike took place as a direct response to UCP government plans to privatize health care support services. On October 13, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced a plan to privatize laundry, food service, laboratory, and other services, which will result in lay-offs to up to 11,000 health care workers. Just three days before the strike, the first phase of the plan was announced, leading to the lay-off of 425 AUPE members. It should also be noted that these announced lay-offs are taking place as Alberta’s COVID cases are rapidly climbing and COVID-related hospitalizations on the rise.
It is likely this strike is not the last direct action we see from Alberta’s public sector workers. The UCP government is engaging in a series of high-profile conflicts with its workers. A burning war with Alberta’s doctors remains unresolved. The announced health privatization plan is regarded by many as the first step towards a more aggressive move toward American-style health care. Dramatic funding cuts to education, social services, and post-secondary institutions are leading to thousands of layoffs in those sectors. And the government has strongly hinted at demands for wage rollbacks for all public sector workers in current bargaining rounds. On many fronts, public sector workers have reason to be concerned, angry and prepared to take action.
The other illuminating aspect of the strike is the government’s aggressive response to the strikers. Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a statement criticizing the action: “Going forward we expect that all unions respect the bargaining process and stop putting Albertans’ safety at risk. … We will not tolerate illegal strike activity”. He also said the workers and the union would “be held accountable” for the strike.
Asserting that unions should “respect the bargaining process” is difficult to reconcile with the UCP government repeatedly interfering with public-sector bargaining and bargaining rights in the past 18 months. They unilaterally postponed arbitration deadlines that were enshrined in collective agreements. They gave themselves the right to impose binding and secret bargaining mandates on public-sector agencies. They tore up a legally negotiated deal with Alberta’s doctors, imposing a legislated contract. They have passed bills constraining workers’ rights to picket. Their recently passed Bill 32 imposes a series of restrictions on union activity, including limits on the right to strike. Apparently, the government expects unions to abide by the law, no matter how unfair, while at the same time affords itself the right to change rules that are inconvenient for the government.
The wildcat strike and the government’s response to it remind us of the conflict inherent in public sector labour relations. The government is both the employer and the body that sets the rules, establishing a dynamic stacked against public sector workers. It is no surprise that public sector workers see through this conflict of interest and take matters into their own hands when they believe their jobs are at risk.
Jason Foster & Bob Barnetson, “One-Day Wildcat Strike by Alberta Health Workers Likely Just the Beginning” Canadian Law of Work Forum (October 28 2020): https://lawofwork.ca/?p=13057