EDMONTON - Alberta's health care system could be thrown into chaos if the province's nine regional health authorities are successful in their bid to force nurses into binding arbitration, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"The arbitration process is a stacked deck," says Les Steel. "That's why the health authorities want it. But if they use binding arbitration to ram through a contract that nurses simply can't agree with, then there are going to be serious consequences. How can showing disrespect for front line employees be good for our health care system?"
Steel says that people who are unfamiliar with the arbitration process may think it sounds like a reasonable way to resolve contract disputes - but the truth is something different. In Alberta, arbitration panels are made up of three representatives, one chosen by the employer, one chosen by the employees and a chairman chosen by the government.
"In the case of the nurses, the government is essentially the employer, so they get two of the three seats - hardly a fair balance," says Steel.
"But it gets worse than that," he adds. "Of the 15 or 16 lawyers in the province available to act as arbitration chairs, only two or three who would be trusted by the labour movement to be truly impartial. And you can bet that those arbitrators won't be the ones chosen by government to chair the panel."
Steel says the perception of bias on arbitration panels is so strong that it is extremely rare for unions to voluntarily submit to the process. In fact, as the one-sided nature of awards has become more apparent, the number of arbitrations has dropped from between 15 and 20 a year in the early 80s to only two or three a year in the 90s.
"With a few exceptions, the only unions that accept the arbitration process are the ones forced into it by legislation, like the firefighters and police," says Steel. "UNA has steered clear of the process for more than 20 years - with good reason."
Steel says that the health authorities know all about the pro-employer tilt of most arbitration panels - and he says that's why they've "deliberately sabotaged the bargaining process."
"They've made ridiculous demands and they've refused to compromise," he says "For example, they want the right to force nurses to work permanent night shifts; and they want the right to move nurses from one worksite to another at will. They know they'd never be able to get these things through honest negotiations - that's why they're trying to force UNA into arbitration."
Given these realities, Steel says that it's "dishonest and self-serving" for the health authorities to say that negotiation have failed and that binding arbitration is the only solution.
"Negotiations have failed because they made them fail - because they wanted them to fail," says Steel, adding that the health authorities are probably hoping to use the confusion caused by the Bill 27 process (which basically threw out all contracts in the health sector) to roll back the clock on Alberta nurses.
But Steel says the health authorities should be careful for what they wish for.
"Even if they succeed in using the arbitration process to impose a backward contract on the nurses, they may end up paying a high price," he says.
"At the very least they will poison the work atmosphere within the health care system - to the detriment of both employees and patients. This is the kind of thing that could drive nurses out of the province or into early retirement. And it's certainly not going to help attract new people to work in the Alberta health care system. Any government that really wanted its health care system to work well wouldn't allow this to happen. It's a recipe for disaster."
For more information call:
Les Steel, AFL President @ (780) 483-3021 or (780) 499-4135 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ (780) 483-3021 or (780) 910-1137 (cell)