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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney holds a media conference at the Alberta United Conservative Party Annual General Meeting in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. The Premier has argued the spending cuts are modest but necessary to keep provincial debt from spiralling out of control.Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is urging the province’s public-sector unions to come to the table with proposals to cut wages or other benefits if they want to soften the blow from potential layoffs stemming from the provincial budget.

The unions announced late last week that the government had sent them letters related to contract negotiations, which collectively identified more than 7,000 positions that could be affected by cuts to health care and other sectors. Union leaders have been gearing up to fight layoffs and demands for cuts, increasing the potential for confrontation with the province that could lead to strikes.

Mr. Kenney’s first budget included a cut of 2.8 per cent to operating spending over the next several years as part of an election promise to rein in spending and balance the province’s budget. The Premier has argued the spending cuts are modest but necessary to keep provincial debt from spiralling out of control.

The Premier told his United Conservative Party’s annual meeting in Calgary that the government will do what it can to mitigate potential layoffs but he acknowledged that it would not be easy. He asked the unions to find ways to reduce the need for job cuts.

“We would like to sit down with the unions to discuss how we can minimize the effect on labour,” Mr. Kenney said during a question-and-answer session with party members on Sunday morning.

“If they are prepared to put on the table some of the benefits that they receive, which are not typical of the private sector, then we can retain more positions in the public sector.”

At a news conference later in the day, Mr. Kenney told reporters that unionized workers need to adjust their expectations to reflect the economic challenges facing the province and he suggested the rhetoric from the Opposition New Democrats, who have accused the government of launching a war on workers that would lead to American-style health care, was overblown.

“Let's try to see a path of co-operation and collaboration, not confrontation,” he said.

“They're making this out to be like the arrival of the apocalypse,” he said. “This is ridiculous. This is by modern Canadian fiscal standards, one of the most modest periods of fiscal restraint.”

Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the layoffs announced so far are likely just a small slice of the total impact on the public sector, which he predicted would affect tens of thousands of jobs. He said the province’s unions have no interest in helping the government make deep cuts to services.

“There is absolutely no good reason why nurses, teachers and other public-sector workers should meekly and mildly accept Jason Kenney’s draconian cuts,” he said in an interview.

“These cuts will devastate our education system, they will devastate our health-care system and they will devastate the other services and programs that Albertans rely on.”

Mr. McGowan argued the provincial government’s financial challenges are self-inflicted by keeping taxes significantly lower than the Canadian average while hoping resource revenues will bounce back. He said Albertan’s unions want to work out these issues through collectively bargaining but strikes remain an option.

A day earlier, Mr. McGowan joined a union rally outside the UCP convention. The protesters circled the venue and booed at UCP members who wandered outside. On Saturday evening, a small group of protesters entered the hotel as delegates were eating dinner. They chanted slogans and traded heckles with conference attendees before eventually leaving peacefully.

NDP health critic David Shepherd called on the government to hold an emergency debate in the legislature. He said that during the spring election campaign, Mr. Kenney signed a “public health guarantee,” which committed to protecting access to care and while maintaining or increasing funding.

“He’s breaking his promise,” Mr. Shepherd said after a health-care rally in Edmonton on Sunday. “There is no way that we improve patient care and that we increase health-care savings by attacking the very workers who deliver that.

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