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Hundreds braved the freezing cold in Calgary to protest government cuts outside the United Conservative Party's annual meeting on Saturday. The Canadian Press

The battle between Alberta and unions representing government employees – particularly those tied to the health-care sector – is sharply escalating, with labour leaders warning strikes could sweep the province given the shattered relationship between the two sides.

Union executives on Monday accused the government, under the control of the United Conservative Party, of disrespecting public-sector employees making policy decisions based on ideology rather than sound analysis. The distrust, executives said, make it unlikely the unions and the government will be able to reach deals at the bargaining table. The outcry came after the government late Friday warned unions that thousands of jobs may be eliminated.

Alberta’s government has long been clear it is willing to use legislation in disputes with unions representing government employees. A handful of collective agreements expire at the end of next March and the acrimonious bargaining is already playing out public. Tension spiked Monday as labour leaders balked at the first details the government has provided with respect to its layoff intentions.

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The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) expects roughly 5,900 positions that are under its umbrella to be axed in the coming years. The government of Alberta, along with Alberta Health Services (AHS), informed AUPE of potential cuts in a series of letters Friday. AUPE members are angry and frustrated, according to Guy Smith, the union’s president.

“I’m telling our locals to prepare our members for potential strike action," he said in an interview Monday. “There are already members that, I think, would go [on strike] right now.”

AUPE positions under threat range from employees in laundry operations to licensed practical nurses and healthcare aides.

AHS on Friday also warned United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), which represents registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses, that it wants to eliminate the equivalent of roughly 500 full-time union positions over the next three years. Home services including nursing, palliative, and pediatric care may be contracted out, AHS said in its letter, as an example of plans it is willing to consider in the future.

Jason Kenney, speaking to reporters at the Council of the Federation meeting in Toronto on Monday, said some unions are asking for as much as an 8-per-cent wage increase, which he called “insulting” to Albertans who have lost jobs over the past five years of economic malaise.

The government wants to work with unions to “finding practical solutions to deliver services more efficiently," Mr. Kenney said.

“We’d like to minimize any labour changes and one way of doing that would be for the unions to show us some flexibility by trimming some of the benefits that their folks receive that are not generally available in the private sector," he said.

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Heather Smith, the president of UNA, dismissed the suggestion that negotiating pay cuts or changes to benefits could save any jobs.

“I do not believe that there is any suggestion of protection of jobs in Mr. Kenney’s view,” she said in a news conference alongside Rachel Notley, the Leader of Alberta’s New Democratic Party.

Ms. Smith said labour executives are not the ones who decide whether to launch a general strike. “It is called by the people of this province," she said. “I guess we’ll have to keep taking the temperature in terms of how much people of this province are prepared to take before they say enough is enough.”

Jason Foster, a professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University, said he expects conflict between the government and public sector employees to continue to heat up but may not necessarily end in job action.

“It is not going to be pretty," he said, but "this is not unusual.”

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