Western News

October 31, 2020

Western Canada: Wildcat health care strike in Alberta escalates tensions between Kenney government and unions


Western Canada: Wildcat health care strike in Alberta escalates tensions between Kenney government and unions

Wendy Cox and James Keller

Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
The fight between Alberta’s United Conservative Party government and its public-sector unions has been steadily building since last year’s provincial election. The government has focused on cutting spending – and jobs – and has warned workers across the public sector to expect wage cuts as the province attempts to get its budgets balanced. Much of that focus has been on the health care system, where the government has targeted nurses and other workers while arguing the province spends too much on health – more per capita than other provinces.
For the unions, the issue reached a crisis earlier this month when the government announced that as many as 11,000 people would be laid off as the province outsources services such as laundry, lab services, cleaning and food.
With that backdrop, hundreds of workers at health facilities across the province staged a surprise strike on Monday, prompting Alberta Health Services to cancel non-urgent operations and file a complaint with the Labour Relations Board.
Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents the workers, said the union members reached a breaking point.
“Our members know that, unfortunately, members of the public would be inconvenienced as a result of their actions,” said Smith. “But they also recognize that if they don’t stand up for public health care now, it would have a much larger impact on the population down the road.”
Government lawyers used the hearing at the labour board to chastise the union for endangering public health during a pandemic, and accused the union of staging a strike even though they knew it was illegal.
The board ruled the strike was, in fact, illegal and ordered the workers to return to their jobs, which they did.
The brief strike has underscored the bitter relationship the province has with labour unions, including those that represent nurses, teachers and other civil servants. Doctors have also been targeted for cuts and many have threatened to leave Alberta, but they are not unionized.
Several labour groups, led by the Alberta Federation of Labour, are launching a campaign this morning declaring Monday’s strike is “just the beginning,” though it’s not clear what that means or whether any other unions are considering similar actions.
The Alberta Federation of Labour has been among the most vocal critics of the UCP, launching a campaign recently that called for boycotts of businesses that had donated to third-party groups that supported the UCP during last year’s election. Premier Jason Kenney called the effort “disturbing.”
Mr. Kenney and other members of his government have argued that Albertans are paying too much for services such as health care and it’s possible to cut while still maintaining high-quality service.
Last year, he urged unionized workers to make sacrifices to their wages to avoid layoffs, and the government is warning that other ministries should brace for cuts similar to the scale of the recent health announcement. The government argues the outsourcing within the Health Ministry will allow the province to spend the money saved on front-line care.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.
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SASKATCHEWAN ELECTION: Scott Moe led his Saskatchewan Party into rare territory Monday winning a fourth straight majority for the longest-serving government in the country. The centre-right party was elected or leading in more than 45 constituencies, comfortably more than the 31 needed to control the 61-seat legislature. Moe was re-elected in his rural riding of Rosthern-Shellbrook, while NDP Leader Ryan Meili was in a fight to retain his Saskatoon Meewasin seat against Rylund Hunter of the Saskatchewan Party. Meili trailed by 83 votes by election night’s end, with as many as 1,600 mail-in ballots to be counted in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the upstart Buffalo Party placed second in a few rural ridings. The party calls for greater provincial control in matters such as policing, pensions and taxation, calls for the building of pipelines, and for each province to live within its own means – without pushing for actual separation from Canada. Its showing at the polls in Saskatchewan on Monday can be read as a small boost for a group of like-minded political parties pushing for greater autonomy for the Prairie provinces.
The campaign centred on starkly contrasting blueprints for how to steer the province, its economy and its $2.1-billion deficit through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. The Saskatchewan Party has been in power since 2007 and is knocking on the door of historic political dominance. The last party to lead Saskatchewan to a fourth term was the NDP in 2007, although it needed coalition help in 1999 to do so. The record still resides with Tommy Douglas and the CCF, which held five majority governments in the middle of the last century.
B.C. ELECTION: BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson resigned Monday, two days after his party was roundly thrashed in Saturday’s election. The party was shut out of strongholds in North Vancouver, Richmond and the Fraser Valley and the election saw the BC Conservatives rise as a vote-splitting force, illustrating once again the tightrope the BC Liberal party must walk to maintain its coalition of left-of-centre federal Liberal voters and right-leaning federal Conservative voters. Mr. Wilkinson said he would stay on as leader until a new one is chosen, but it’s unclear what the timing of a leadership race would be or whether his caucus will want him out earlier.
Final results from the election won’t be known for another 10 days, when the 525,000 mail-in votes are counted. But the NDP’s win was so decisive, even if the Liberals won the handful of ridings still in doubt, it wouldn’t make much difference to its opposition status.
Despite the massive embrace of mail-in ballots by voters – about 720,000 requests were made – and brisk activity at advance polls, in the end, voter turnout was among the worst in any B.C. election on record. Just 52 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot last Saturday. Political scientist Hamish Telford of the University of the Fraser Valley said the turnout for this election wasn’t surprising given the pandemic: “People are preoccupied. People weren’t happy with the election being called. They also have bigger concerns at the moment.”
Addressing those bigger concerns is now NDP Leader John Horgan’s job. Problem is, he won’t be able to get down to it until after the final vote count and then after he has sworn in a new cabinet. As Justine Hunter reports, that means that urgent issues, such as distributing relief money to small businesses and questions around how the back-to-school plan is working as COVID cases rise, cannot be addressed until the middle of next month. As our editorial board wrote, winning the election was the easy part. When his cabinet is sworn in, beyond the immediate urgency of the pandemic, he will also have to confront the escalating costs of the Site C dam and the opioid crisis.
Meantime, as Gary Mason writes, the Liberals' problems are of a more existential nature. The party, he maintains, is at risk of disappearing all together, the culmination of a changing electorate and an inability to adapt to it.
JOEY MOSS: Joey Moss, a long-time fixture in the Edmonton Oilers dressing room and an inspiration to people with mental disabilities, died Monday afternoon at age 57. Born with Down syndrome, he began a long and lasting relationship with Wayne Gretzky in 1980. The Great One was dating Moss’s sister, Vikki, at the time and helped him land a job with the NHL team as an equipment manager. Moss was beloved by everyone in the organization and served in that position until recently.
MANITOBA COVID-19 SPIKE: Manitoba’s top doctor urged residents Monday to stop gathering in large groups, saying many of the 100 new cases reported by the province that day were linked to Thanksgiving festivities. The vast majority of the new infections were in Winnipeg, which was placed under enhanced restrictions after a recent spike in cases. So far, there have been 4,349 cases in Manitoba, 2,117 of which are active, and 55 deaths. “The trajectory is in the wrong direction and if we continue at this pace, we are likely going to see over 5,000 cases by the end of this week,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Public Health Officer.
MONEY LAUNDERING: The former leader of Richmond, B.C.'s RCMP detachment and front-line investigators with B.C.'s gambling agency told a public inquiry into money laundering that they were hamstrung by higher-ups when trying to investigate how a major casino became a hub for suspicious gamblers and alleged loan sharks. Ward Clapham, who commanded the Mounties in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond from 2001 until he retired in 2008, testified at the Cullen Commission on Tuesday that his superiors nixed a proposal to form a four-officer unit to tackle a crime wave tied to the River Rock Casino opening in 2004. He added that the City of Richmond later ignored his subsequent proposal to increase the detachment’s budget to create a pared-down unit of two officers focused on the casino. Also Tuesday, Stone Lee, a long-time investigator with British Columbia Lottery Corp., or BCLC, testified that in 2012 his boss Terry Towns, vice-president of corporate security and compliance at the time, told him and two other money-laundering specialists that they were to stop banning suspicious gamblers spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at River Rock.
MIGRATING CHEFS: The COVID-19 pandemic is said to be driving an exodus from the cities as urbanites reassess their priorities and search for greener pastures. Whether this shift is actually happening en masse is still up for debate. But it’s clear that restaurants in downtown Vancouver and Victoria, which are dependent on office workers and international tourism, are hurting more than their counterparts in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas, where locals live and continue to play. According to Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, business at downtown restaurants is down 20 to 30 per cent, while restaurants in the suburbs and some tourist regions have been performing well during the pandemic “if not better” than they did last year.
B.C. FILM INDUSTRY: British Columbia’s production sector, which includes TV, feature films and visual effects, accounted for a record $4.1-billion in spending in the province in 2019, but a months-long production shutdown from the pandemic is likely to result in bleaker numbers when figures are calculated for this year. The numbers are detailed in newly released research by the Vancouver Economic Commission, which says that $3.1-billion of last year’s total was spent on physical production – work on sound stages and locations. David Shepheard, the Vancouver film commissioner, said 41 productions were in progress when the pandemic shut everything down in March. There are now 60 productions in various stages of activity, but Mr. Shepheard said it won’t be enough to make up for the months of loss during the pandemic once the numbers for 2020 are calculated.
Jan Reimer on the importance of funding women’s shelters during the pandemic: “Though not always recognized as such, women’s shelters offer essential services and respond 24/7 to women and seniors fleeing violence. Women who fear for the safety of their children and for themselves can’t participate fully in the work force or support their families and social networks in myriad other ways, so shelters offer social supports that are vital for our society and our economy.”
Adam Pankratz on the BC Green Party: “In her concession speech, Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said the NDP called the election to “get a majority and wipe out their opponents,” but were only “half-successful.” Actually, the NDP were 100-per-cent successful – it now holds a majority and much more power – and her remarks revealed just how blind the party remains to the way it has been hammered and outfoxed by a more ruthless NDP since 2017.”
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