Frontline hospital workers wildcat against massive cuts to public healthcare

Marianne Garneau reports on a wildcat in progress in Alberta

Hospital workers have walked off the job at several facilities across Alberta in a strike against the government’s proposed elimination of tens of thousands of jobs, among other “cost-cutting” measures announced in the middle of a global pandemic.

Licensed practical nurses, laboratory workers, and general support staff like cleaners, cafeteria workers and porters are now on a mass wildcat strike. All are members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents more than 90,000 workers, including about 58,000 in health care. 

AUPE President Guy smith says that Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Premier Jason Kenney “have arrogantly dismissed the vital role our members play in front-line health care. After risking their lives to come to work every day for more than seven months – to treat patients, to prevent infections, to keep hospitals running – their reward is to see their jobs axed and handed over to corporations seeking to profit off patient care. That is shameful.”

The United Conservative Party (UCP) in the province recently passed a resolution at their annual general meeting to create a “privately funded and privately-managed healthcare system” in Alberta. And yet while campaigning in February before the most recent election, Kenney signed a “public health guarantee” promising to “maintain or increase” public health spending and to “maintain a universally accessible, publicly funded health care system” (he literally dramatically signed a giant placard), and said the government would find health care savings without affecting front-line workers.

Conservative governments in the province have repeatedly tried to privatize health care despite the broad unpopularity of the move. The latest attempt seems particularly ill-timed. It is part of a series of UCP maneuvers against health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic: asking for layoffs of registered nurses at the bargaining table, and unilaterally ending the province’s contract with doctors and reducing their compensation.

The Alberta Health Services draft plan to cut health care acknowledges “there is the risk of legal and illegal job action.”

Hospitals on strike include the Royal Alexandra Hospital and Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, the South Health Campus and Foothills Hospital in Calgary, Westlock Healthcare Centre, Cold Lake, Red Deer Regional, Athabasca, Home Care in Lethbridge, Whitecourt, East River, Leduc, Westview, and Fort Saskatchewan. 23 locations have walked so far.

The striking workers’ demands include: job security against outsourcing their jobs to the private sector, addressing short-staffing issues, stopping the privatization of public healthcare, and no retaliation against anyone for taking a stand in defense of public healthcare.

The apparently spontaneous wildcat was prompted by frustration at the government’s moves. “Anger has been building among members for months,” notes Smith.

Once again, unions are the ones protecting the public interest during the pandemic. Says smith, “Members will do everything in their power to keep Albertans safe. Public safety is why they are taking this action. They know that slashing thousands of front-line jobs during a pandemic is mad. It will lead to lower levels of care and higher costs. It will lead to tragedies.”