EDMONTON - The strike that is currently crippling hospitals across the province is a clear example of the provincial government "reaping what it has sown," says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization.
Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says that the Alberta government created the conditions for a labour dispute in the health care sector by enacting harsh labour laws that blatantly favour employers and by starving the health care system of badly needed funds.
"By making it illegal for these workers to strike, the government has essentially created an environment in which employers hold all the cards. The regional health authorities have no incentive to bargain in good faith," says Cormack.
"This problem has been compounded by budget cuts and chronic under-funding. People working in hospitals and nursing homes across the province are constantly be asked to worker harder while earning less. This kind of situation can only go on so long before the workers involved reach a breaking point."
Under Alberta labour law, most provincial government workers - including the majority of health care workers currently on the picket line - are deemed "essential" and, therefore, denied the right-to-strike. Instead of strikes, disputes are sent to government-appointed arbitration panels which draft settlements that are binding on both the workers and the employer.
"The problem with the arbitration process is that it tilts the field in favour of the employer and undermines the entire bargaining process," says Cormack. "The employers know the government appointees on the arbitration panels will rule in their favour - so they have no real incentive to bargain in good faith. That's why the regional health authorities are just starting to bargain now - the strike is finally forcing them to take the workers seriously."
As a result of the arbitration process and the ban on strikes for public sector workers, Cormack says licensed practical nurses and other health care workers in Alberta have fallen far behind their counterparts in other provinces in terms of wages and benefits. But she says it doesn't have to be this way.
"If the government really wants to settle this dispute quickly they should do two things," says Cormack. "In the short term, they should allocate more of the provincial government's huge budget surplus to health care so that the regional health authorities can afford to give their employees fair wage increases. In the longer term, what's needed are major changes to Alberta labour laws. Without the right to strike, employers will continue to ignore the legitimate demands of health care workers and these workers will continue to be paid far less than they deserve."
For more information:
Audrey Cormack, AFL President @ (780) 499-6530 (cell)/483-3021 (wk)/428-9367 (hm)