The union representing Alberta health-care staff who walked off the job Monday to protest recent cuts says its members will return to work after the province’s labour relations board ruled they acted illegally.
In a decision issued late Monday, the board ruled the workers’ refusal to work amounted to an illegal strike under the province’s Labour Relations Code, and they must return to work according to their scheduled shifts.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents the workers, said it would notify its members of their obligation to obey the labour board’s directive.
“AUPE members won support from across Alberta for their heroic stand, and proved once and for all that health-care staff is more than doctors and nurses,” said the union’s statement late Monday night noting members will return to work Tuesday.
The AUPE represents about 58,000 health-care workers, although it wasn’t clear how many walked off the job. There were reports of picketing outside the Royal Alexandra Hospital and University of Alberta in Edmonton, Foothills Hospital and the South Health Campus in Calgary, as well as at many other facilities across the province.
Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news release that he was pleased with the labour board’s decision.
“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,” Toews said.
Alberta Health Services, which delivers health-care in the province, said in a statement that it also expected staff members to return to work as scheduled.
Earlier this month, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the United Conservative government would be cutting up to 11,000 health jobs to save money during the pandemic, but he said nurses and front-line clinical staff would not be affected.
Some of the cuts are to come from further contracting out of laundry and lab services.
Guy Smith, president of the union, said in a release earlier Monday that members were trying to defend jobs and protect the public health-care system.
“Anger has been building among members for months,” said Smith. “The recent announcement by Health Minister Tyler Shandro of 11,000 jobs being cut in the middle of a global deadly pandemic was the last straw for them.”
AHS said it enacted contingency plans due to the walkouts to redeploy non-union staff, including managers, to cover for missing staff.
An AHS spokesman later said 157 non-emergency surgeries — the majority in Edmonton — were postponed Monday. They were in addition to elective surgeries postponed in Edmonton late last week due to COVID-19.
Toews said earlier that the government’s primary concern was ensuring the health and well-being of patients.
Shandro’s office had declined to comment on the walkouts.
The province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said she didn’t know how the walkouts would affect the health-care system, since there are already staffing shortages due to COVID-19 and the respiratory virus season.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said earlier in a statement that her caucus believes patient safety must always be the top priority, but added the government’s proposal to privatize the work of 11,000 workers in the middle of a pandemic will result in poorer care for Albertans.
“This reckless plan must stop,’” she said.
— With files from Lauren Krugel in Calgary and Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton
Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press