EDMONTON - There are many lessons to be learned from the two-day strike that crippled hospitals across the province earlier this week - but the most important one is that Alberta's labour laws are deeply flawed, says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"We're extremely pleased that a settlement has been reached that addresses the concerns of the health care workers involved," says Cormack. "But the bottom line is that this was a strike that could have been avoided. If Alberta had better labour laws, these workers probably would not have walked off the job and patients would not have been inconvenienced."
Cormack focused her criticism on the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA) the law that governs labour relations in the provincial public sector.
Under this law, almost all provincial government workers - from clerks and janitors to technicians and nurses - are deemed "essential" and therefore denied the right to strike. Unions can still bargain for contracts, but if negotiations reach an impasse the dispute is sent to a government-appointed arbitration panel which drafts a settlement that is binding on both parties.
The problem with this arrangement is that the arbitration panels are made up of three members - one chosen by the union, one chosen by the government and one chosen by the employer (who is either the government itself or an agency of the government). The result is a panel that always votes two-to-one against the union.
To make matters worse, PSERA severely restricts the issues that can be dealt with by the arbitration panels. For example, basic workplace issues like pensions, workload, contracting out and job classification cannot be discussed. As a result, people employed in workplaces governed by PSERA have been left with absolutely no avenues to pursue a wide range of common and legitimate workplace concerns.
"PSERA is probably the most draconian piece of labour legislation in the country," says Cormack. "It doesn't just tip the playing field in favour of employers, it sets up a game in which the workers can never win."
Knowing that the deck is stacked in their favour, Cormack says public sector employers - such as the regional health authorities - usually refuse to bargain in good faith. Instead, they simply wait for the dispute to be referred to an arbitration panel where they know the workers concerns will be tossed aside.
"The law is so bad and so unfair that it was only a matter of time before workers and their unions said 'enough is enough'," says Cormack, adding that the built-in unfairness of PSERA is the reason why Alberta health care workers have fallen so far behind the wages of their counterparts in other provinces.
After reviewing the lessons of Alberta's latest health care strike, Cormack says what's obviously needed is a new labour law that gives public sector workers the right to strike.
"Once the workers actually went on strike, the regional health authorities finally started to bargain and an agreement was reached in just two days," says Cormack. "If the unions had the right to strike, the government would have taken the negotiations much more seriously from the start and an agreement probably could have been reached without job action. That's the lesson of this whole situation - a strike probably could have been avoided if the workers involved had the right to strike.
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, President @ 483-3021(wk)/499-6530 (cell)/428-9367 (hm)