Alberta Politics
The amusing staged photo of part of UNA’s bargaining team that accompanied the union’s news release yesterday (Photo: United Nurses of Alberta).

UCP posturing around public sector wages portends a return to perpetual crisis in health care

Posted on May 15, 2019, 1:07 am
10 mins

The United Conservative Party Government’s transparent early manoeuvres around public sector wage negotiations and the heavy hints found in a paper by the chair of Premier Jason Kenney’s “blue ribbon panel” on Alberta’s finances portend a stormy period ahead in public sector labour relations, especially in health care.

Since health care makes up such a significant portion of the Alberta and Canadian public sectors, this in turn signals a return to the perpetual crisis that is emblematic of the health care system under Conservative rule.

Janice MacKinnon, chair of Premier Jason Kenney’s “blue ribbon panel” (Photo: American Energy News).

So if you were one of those Alberta voters for whom health care had ceased to be a front-burner issue under the capable leadership of former NDP health minister Sarah Hoffman (now the Opposition education critic), well … fasten your seatbelt!

In a news release yesterday, United Nurses of Alberta Labour Relations Director David Harrigan revealed that even before its MLAs had been sworn in, Mr. Kenney’s UCP Government was interfering with the collective bargaining process and acting as if the terms of legal contracts between employee unions and public sector employers can be changed without consultation at the whim of the government.

The release said UNA has filed an application with the Alberta Labour Relations Board to overturn an arbitrator’s ruling that would allow Alberta Health Services, on the instructions of the government, to ignore specific wording in the its collective agreement with UNA about the timing of wage-reopener negotiations already under way.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

UNA’s agreement states that in the event no agreement is reached in bargaining, an arbitration hearing must be held no later than June 30, 2019.

In addition, the union filed grievances against several employers covered by its main agreement (AHS is the largest) arguing they are bargaining in bad faith because the shots are being called by the government.

UNA’s bargaining committee was told by AHS bargaining team members they had been instructed by the UCP Government to put negotiations on hold until it could “engage in consultation” with public sector unions.

Confronted by reporters, Finance Minister Travis Toews admitted yesterday that, yeah, the government had instructed AHS to stop the arbitration. However, he refused to say if the government will demand a wage rollback.

United Nurses of Alberta Labour Relations Director David Harrigan (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Which brings us back to blue ribbon panel chair Janice MacKinnon’s suggestions in her October 2017 paper co-authored with University of Calgary economist Jack Mintz, a favourite of conservative politicians and right-wing media, that offers a strategy for “putting the Alberta budget on a new trajectory.”

You can’t argue with the title of the paper even if you doubt its conclusions!

Using legislation to declare war on public employees by cutting wages that have been frozen since 2016, slashing taxes for billionaires and profitable foreign corporations, and all the rest of the Conservative austerity playbook would certainly put the provincial budget on a new trajectory. Or, rather, restore it to an old one that didn’t work very well.

However, one can certainly argue with the paper’s conclusions and predictions – that big tax cuts will create jobs, for example, the self-serving claim of right-wing governments everywhere that has been repeatedly debunked by economic research.

It seems to me a fair observation that one of the principal objectives of Dr. MacKinnon’s 2017 paper was to justify her controversial performance as the Saskatchewan NDP’s finance minister in the 1990s, when her signature budget-balancing policy was to close 52 rural hospitals. That won the Saskatchewan NDP a permanent spot on the Opposition benches.

Finance Minister Travis Toews (Photo: Government of Alberta).

The paper touts Saskatchewan’s surgical day procedures initiative, which showed some success as long as the Saskatchewan government poured money into it, whereupon it flopped. The program was abandoned in 2014.

The paper’s assessment of the threat posed by debt is vastly overblown, and its view of the supposed benefits of public-private partnerships is, shall we say, charming.

Its suggestion the Alberta government needs to legislatively impose salary cuts on health care workers is a recipe for chaos and understaffing – which, it’s important to remember, may suit neoliberal governments with a hidden agenda of creating conditions in which the break-up and privatization of public enterprises can be excused and justified.

Such conclusions are certainly why Dr. MacKinnon, a University of Saskatchewan historian and not an economist, was chosen to lead Mr. Kenney’s panel. She can be counted on to deliver the right conclusions. And it’s worth noting that a right-wing economist, Bev Dahlby, approvingly quoted in her paper, now pops up on the panel too. It’s almost a surprise Dr. Mintz isn’t there as well.

Former health minister Sarah Hoffman (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Indeed, the paper’s bibliography is worth a look, replete with work by Fraser Institute hacks, political advisors to the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper, private health insurance advocates, and the authors’ own previous papers, in additional to more traditional sources.

It is reasonable to conclude the 2017 paper is what Mr. Harrigan called the road map, and the UCP government’s recent moves are the opening gambits to put the plan into action.

So let’s look at the economic reality facing Registered Nurses in Alberta – a group of workers frequently described as the backbone of health care who appear to be on the UCP hit list.

Alberta RNs’ wages have been frozen since 2017, widening a gap that already existed between increases in the average hourly wage for all workers and those for RNs alone. From spring 2010 to this year average wages in Alberta rose about 27 per cent, for RNs only 14 per cent.

The effect of the post-2017 wage freeze was to reduce the real wages paid to RNs by 4.6 per cent with inflation. Indeed, the real wages paid to Alberta RNs today are lower than they were in 2010!

Meanwhile, a nursing shortage is growing in Canada and elsewhere in the world, so Alberta can reasonably expect a serious nursing crisis soon, even without competition for RNs by other jurisdictions willing to pay.

The UCP seems to think that if you give corporations more money they’ll come to Alberta. What makes them think this isn’t true for nurses, too – professionals who thanks to their international licensing process now have the mobility to work anywhere in North America?

And these market fundamentalists of the UCP think rolling back nurses’ wages, as Dr. MacKinnon prescribes, is the way to prevent yet another health care meltdown?

These are well known facts the nurses’ union wanted to put before the arbitrator in their wage-reopener negotiations. You can see why a government bent on attacking public sector wages might not want want such information to be considered.

If you care about heath care, you have to have a bad feeling about how this is all going to end.

11 Comments to: UCP posturing around public sector wages portends a return to perpetual crisis in health care

  1. Bob Raynard

    May 15th, 2019

    The May issue of ‘Alberta Views’ magazine includes a discussion between Greg Flanagan and the same Bev Dahlby about the current level of taxation in Alberta. In his piece, Mr. Dahlby argues that, although Alberta has the lowest taxes in Canada, Alberta’s taxes are still higher than all of the American states, except California, and we apparently need to be able to compete with those jurisdictions as well.

    What Mr. Dahlby chooses to ignore, however, is that the tax in the States does not include the cost of health care. For a company considering taxation levels when deciding where to locate their business, to truly compare Alberta’s tax with that of an American state’s, the company would need to add the cost of the health care for their employees to the state’s taxes.

    Comparing Alberta’s level of taxation with American states’ is meaningless, but I expect we will see the argument made by the UCP.

  2. Michael

    May 15th, 2019

    RE: “It seems to me a fair observation that one of the principal objectives of Dr. MacKinnon’s 2017 paper was to justify her controversial performance as the Saskatchewan NDP’s finance minister in the 1990s, when her signature budget-balancing policy was to close 52 rural hospitals. That won the Saskatchewan NDP a permanent spot on the Opposition benches.”

    Weren’t the the rural hospital closures in 1993, after which Romanow’s NDP won another comfortable, albeit reduced majority in the 1995 election (Liberals second !), followed by a minority in 1999, and Calvert leading them to a very slim majority in 2003 ? I mean, I am willing to believe that these closures hurt them in terms of rural vote, and that that trust is hard to rebuild, but a look at the electoral map in 1995 shows a lot of orange rural ridings still, and even in 1999 there were still about half a dozen. It seems imprudent to conclude that their place on the opposition benches is solely attributable to that. People wanted a change for various reasons in 2007 (including city people), and Brad Wall was very fortunate to preside over a booming economy for most of the next decade, which kept him in office.

    Reading the McKinnon/Mintz article you link to is depressing. There is no acknowlegement of the success the NDP had, over its 4 year term, in limiting salary increases in the public sector, nor is the blame for the rapid increases of the previous 6-10 years laid where it belongs, on the PCs, whose spending when money was abundant was not well planned. The last 3 years my employee group has received 0,0, and 0 % increases. Before that there was 1 year at 1% and one at 2 % (negotiated before the election in 2015). A little over a decade ago were were getting numbers like 4, 4.5 and so on.

    • David Climenhaga

      May 16th, 2019

      Your point about the timing is well taken. I have oversimplified. I stand by my conviction, however, that the closing of rural hospitals by the Romanow Government is a key part of the near total alienation of rural Saskatchewan from the NDP, and a key to the continued success of the Saskatchewan Party, although certainly not the only one. DJC

  3. Simon Renouf

    May 15th, 2019

    Right on target, DC, as always. I read the MacKinnon and Mintz paper and was particularly struck by the comment in the taxation section that corporate taxes impose an economic cost by “discouraging work effort”, while elsewhere the report recommends pay cuts for public employees, presumably without worry about how that might “discourage work effort”. It reminded me of the famous observation of John Kenneth Galbraith, made in 1991 on the work of right wing economists: “We can safely abandon the doctrine of the eighties, namely that the rich were not working because they had too little money, the poor because they had too much.”

  4. Public Servant

    May 15th, 2019

    The UCP can’t even wait until the spring session starts before starting to abuse front line public sector workers. It’s going to be a long 4 years of the UCP demonizing these folks at every opportunity.

    I guess the 0% that public sector unions settled for isn’t enough for Kenney. After all, someone has to pay for the massive tax giveaway to the wealthy.

  5. Kang

    May 15th, 2019

    The Cons have long argued that “Parliament is supreme” so nobody should be surprised that arbitrarily throwing out on-going contracts is part of their game plan. The legal history of South Africa and apartheid is instructive. South Africa has the same legal and legislative system we have. Over the decades many SA lawyers went to court to overturn the apartheid laws. In most of the cases they were successful. The democratically elected racist government then promptly passed legislation nullifying the court victories against apartheid. This is what “Parliament is supreme” actually means and that is what the cons proclaim. Nobody should be surprised the UCP are applying this to labour relations.

  6. Dave

    May 16th, 2019

    People were starting to debate the merits of the UCP’s corporate tax cuts. I suspect the UCP did not want people to linger on this too long as opinion could easily turn against them on this one. Therefore, time to create a distraction. We’ll see how long Kenney keeps his no cuts promise. I suspect he is hoping his carefully selected “blue ribbon” panel can soon get him off the hook for that one.

    Of course the bigger wage increases occurred in the previous PC government before 2014, when times were better and they were trying to haphazardly fix the health care system from the last time they panicked and cut health care expenses too quickly. I think in the long run the steady as it goes approach of the NDP will prove to be more financially effective as well as better for service delivery than the yo-yo approach to budgeting of the PC’s and possibly the UCP. However, I am sure the UCP will not blame the PC’s for anything (they do still have a former PC or two in their caucus) and try to blame the NDP for everything.

  7. Athabascan

    May 16th, 2019

    Oh, well…
    I’m still pissed at my fellow-Albertans for voting UCP. You get the government you deserve.

    • la

      May 23rd, 2019

      you know how many RN’s voted for UCP, eat it up, nom nom nom

  8. brian johnson

    January 20th, 2020

    I hope all the the people that voted ucp have to use our health care system in the next 3 years and really see what they voted for


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