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Alberta Minister of Finance and President of the Treasury Board Travis Toews delivers the 2021 budget in Edmonton, Feb. 25, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The union representing registered nurses in Alberta says it’s “grossly insulting” and hypocritical for Finance Minister Travis Toews to accuse them of putting their needs first during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Normally when we’re in negotiations it’s (the) ministers of health that pipe up,” David Harrigan, director of labour relations for the United Nurses of Alberta, said in an interview Friday.

“This round (of bargaining) is the first time that the minister of finance continues to throw out these news releases grossly insulting the UNA.”

Harrigan questioned why the province is having contract talks with other public sector unions during the pandemic but wants the UNA to put its deal on pause.

“Mr. Toews had no problem at all with the government insisting on negotiating with (the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees). I’ve never seen such hypocrisy,” he said.

During the pandemic, the government has also continued negotiations on a new agreement covering pay and working conditions with physicians. A tentative deal was recently announced by Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Paul Boucher, the head of the Alberta Medical Association.

The rank and file members of the AMA are now voting on whether to ratify that agreement.

The last four-year collective agreement with Alberta Health Services and the United Nurses of Alberta expired almost a year ago.

The UNA says it represents more than 30,000 registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and other workers in the province.

The two sides began negotiating a new deal in 2019, but then mutually agreed twice to suspend contract talks to the end of this month in order to focus on the pandemic.

This week, the UNA formally notified Alberta Health Services it wants to get back to bargaining and seeks meeting times in April or May.

Harrigan said the government is proceeding with other health initiatives, such as reducing surgical wait times, and that it’s time to get back to the table to sort out the contract and determine how nurses will fit into those changes.

He said no Albertan will suffer because of it.

“The AHS negotiator is not out there dealing with COVID. Alberta Health Services hires people to negotiate their collective agreements, and they hire professional negotiators. They don’t hire COVID health care professionals.”

Toews disagrees. In a news release issued Thursday, he said he was “very disappointed” with the UNA decision.

“Right now, Alberta’s government is focused on what matters most – the rollout of our vaccination program and continued response to the pandemic,” wrote Toews.

“We’re starting to make headway in this battle with COVID-19, and I’m hopeful that other unions at AHS do not follow the lead of UNA, and will agree to delay negotiations that puts the health of Albertans first.”

Harrigan said he suspects the real reason the province does not want to return to the bargaining table is that it would have to disclose its plan to proceed with a layoff program revealed in late 2019.

That plan would see 500 nursing positions eliminated over three years, a figure the UNA says is equivalent to more than 700 employees losing their jobs once job-sharing is factored in.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government has said Alberta nurses are better compensated than those in comparable jurisdictions and that carefully targeted reductions and outsourcing are needed to keep the health system viable.

The layoff plan was put on hiatus in March 2020, when Shandro and Toews announced there would be no nurses let go during the pandemic.

Harrigan said the plan is dormant but not extinct.

“They want to keep that hidden,” said Harrigan.

“They don’t want to admit to the public that as soon as this pandemic is over, there’s going to be huge layoffs.”

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