Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It seemed crazy for the United Conservative Party Government of Premier Jason Kenney to pick a fight with the province’s doctors in the middle of a pandemic.

Still, if you believe the Roman proverb that fortune favours the brave and look at the world from Mr. Kenney’s ideological perspective, you can understand why he might have thought a bold attack on the most expensive component in the public health care system might be worth the risk.

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

If the docs could be persuaded there was no hope the government would yield – and also be convinced there was something in it for them if they were to give up and go with the flow – the UCP might just achieve the dream of the neoliberal right to hole Canadian public health insurance below the waterline.

But you’ll notice the Romans didn’t say, “Fortune favours the foolhardy” – because history suggests pretty strongly she doesn’t.

Like doctors, nurses are medical professionals on the front lines of health care. Unlike doctors, they tend to be salaried employees of large health care organizations. There’s no credible case to be made that privatizing public health care will somehow work in their interest.

So while most doctors will defend the obvious merits of public health care, there will always be a few who can be wedged away from the Alberta Medical Association’s bargaining positions with the promise of big bucks from themselves. That isn’t going to work as well with nurses, because they’re always going to be wage slaves, just like the rest of us.

So, what’s leading the Kenney Government to flirt with the idea of starting a war on nurses at the same time as it’s prosecuting a war on docs? Surely even Tyler Shandro, Mr. Kenney’s intemperate health minister, isn’t that dumb!

That presumably explains why it was Finance Minister Travis Toews who fired off an intemperate press release last week attacking the nurses’ union for refusing to go along with the government’s plan to put off contract negotiations with health care unions until the COVID-19 crisis has passed and the UCP could get back to its plan to lay off nurses and other unionized health care workers without political consequences.

“AHS offered job security during the pandemic in exchange for a pause in negotiations until March 31, 2021,” Mr. Toews said in his petulant press release, omitting to note why this isn’t a very good deal from the nurses’ perspective.

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

“It is regrettable that UNA’s union leadership has decided to play games in the media around this common sense offer to a pause bargaining (sic),” he huffed.

“UNA’s overreaching and disingenuous demand for indefinite job security is a shameful effort to take advantage of a health crisis,” Mr. Toews continued, misrepresenting the union’s position that there should be no layoffs during the pandemic when everyone’s priority ought to be the health of Albertans and accusing the union of dishonesty for taking a completely straightforward position.

It shouldn’t require Dale Carnegie to explain to Mr. Toews why that’s no way to win friends and influence people.

“By insulting Alberta nurses and refusing to postpone a government plan to lay off at least 750 nurses until after a new collective agreement is in place, Mr. Toews is generating considerable uncertainty in the health care system,” UNA Labour Relations Director David Harrigan said in the union’s response to the minister’s unexpected broadside.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

“To do this on the day Alberta reported its highest number of new COVID-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic is almost incomprehensible,” he added.

The layoff plan cited by Mr. Harrigan is not just speculation, by the way, or NDP propaganda, as the government’s “issues managers” are likely to pretend.

In November 2019, Alberta Health Services clearly indicated to United Nurses of Alberta its intention to lay off 750 Registered Nurses as a first step of a planned reorganization, with more to follow.

Then came the coronavirus, a genuine public health care crisis, and practical politics demanded the plan be put on hold.

This explains why the government is now so anxious to put bargaining for new contracts with all of its major health care unions onto the back burner: Because it knows that in the midst of a pandemic the public would be horrified to be reminded of what it has in mind, and it understands that under the law of the land it will be required to disclose the details of its plans in bargaining.

Alberta Labour Minister Jason Copping (Photo: Immigrant Education Society).

It doesn’t fully explain Mr. Toews’s verbal temper tantrum, which suggests the finance minister either doesn’t understand or care how collective bargaining is required by law to work.

But as a former union president of my acquaintance, now retired from the fray, put it: “The nurses should send the finance minister a thank you note. Misinformation allows informed clarification.”

“Those guys won’t bargain well,” he added. “There’s hardly anyone in the UCP with any experience in that world.”

Those that do know the drill, moreover, like Labour Minister Jason Copping, are unlikely to be paid much heed.

What will the UCP do next if its bluff doesn’t work? Recent history suggests something heavy handed – more unconstitutional legislation, perhaps.

The Legislature is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 20. So keep an eye on the order paper.

After more than a year in power, the UCP doesn’t have a lot of successes to point to. But while they can hardly be dizzy with success as they’d like us to believe, they can still be dizzy with excess, so brace is yourselves for more pandemic pandemonium.

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  1. Well I didn’t expect the UCP would stop at the war on doctors. They came into power with preconceptions they didn’t want to change and a long list of potential enemies.

    I do agree that while the Health Minister is not the brightest, he probably realized it was not a good idea for him to start another healthcare war before the one on doctors has come to some sort of conclusion. Apparently he didn’t share his modest wisdom with the Finance Minister, or Mr. Toews didn’t care or perhaps he doesn’t get it.

    Well I suppose the UCP only has 4 years and a long list of battles to fight. They claim to aspire to be a dynasty, but seem rather in a hurry to do everything now. Those that endure in politics usually pick their battles carefully and even retreat a bit when necessary; they are not at war with everyone on their enemies list all at once.

  2. The UCP will stop at nothing to treat Alberta’s medical professionals shamefully, as they treated other segments of Alberta’s population shamefully, like those on A.I.S.H. They are merely following in the footsteps of Ralph Klein, (who also treated those on A.I.S.H shamefully), and will stop at nothing to finish his idea of having full on private for profit health care in Alberta. Nurses and doctors help save lives, and they are not getting the recognition they deserve. Not from the UCP. How about the UCP’s bold face lie, which Postmedia columnists happily echoed, that doctors are not leaving Alberta, but are coming to Alberta? Toying with the idea of private for profit health care in Alberta isn’t a sensible idea, especially if a federal election were to happen. Canadians in other provinces and territories would get wind of this and not elect the CPC. Albertans would turf the UCP. This also happened with Ralph Klein, but unfortunately he didn’t get thrown out fast enough. Covid cases in Alberta are going up at an alarming rate. We are now in the second wave. It is a very stupid thing for the UCP to attack our medical professionals, now, or at any other time. Also, the UCP’s careless attitude towards covid is going to come back to bite them in the rear end. They will soon see that things will get so bad, that they will have to change their thinking. By then, it will be too late.

    1. I agree that the UCP act shamelessly, but not that they’re “following the footsteps of Ralph Klein”. Jason Kenney has gone far beyond anything ol’ Ralph ever dared. Klein’s government cut spending by about 20% over three years, less for health and education, more everywhere else. Six months after his election–one month after Andrew Scheer lost–Kenney cut 20% all at once.

      Ralph’s attempts to privatize health care were half-hearted. Kenney seems intent on destroying it, the faster the better. Remember the new testing lab started by the Notley government? Kenney cancelled it. It would have been union, and it was in Edmonton. (Coincidence or malice? Naw, more likely just bonus points. It wasn’t private, that was reason enough.)

      Beating on doctors and nurses because they’re “paid more than other provinces” (paraphrase) is exactly in line with the doctrine (almost a religious dogma) that “government spending is out of control.” Ralph Klein said much the same: “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.” Not so fast, Ralph. Alberta had a revenue problem because oil prices cratered in the mid-’80s while Don Getty was premier. Now it’s back to the future, where Alberta has a revenue problem because Ralph cut royalty rates to 1% (sparking an insane building boom), nobody dared increase royalties–remember Ed Stelmach?–and anyway the Saudis keep dumping cheap oil into global markets. But Ralph’s boom “lifted all boats,” for a wonder, leaving Alberta with the highest average income of all the provinces. The boom went bust-bust-bust, and now it’s easier to pick on government employees than to admit we need serious tax reform.

      US Republicans always do as much damage as possible as fast as possible. This, too, is a case where Kenney exceeds Ralph’s biggest achievements. The idea is to beat up as many people as possible early, break their spirit–then at the last minute (i.e. just before the election)–toss them a few crumbs. The grateful schmucks will forget how often you put the boot in, and vote for you because you’re not abusing them this month.

      And that’s why I’m afraid you’re wrong that the Kenney Klowns will get bitten on the butt by Covid-19. The rest of us will get bit first and hardest.

  3. This morning the Alberta College of Physicians moves to limit a doctor’s ability to choose where they will, or won’t work. Completely unconstitutional.
    But hey, out here on the flats, institutions that are designed to protect citizens and in fact do protect citizens of other jurisdictions and have for generations, well here in one of the most ignorant, belligerent and mean-spirited jurisdictions in the modern first world those institutions prefer to protect corporate masters and grovel at the feet of the politically popular.
    This is such a common occurrence that it barely registers anymore with the mostly compliant locals.
    Even the AUPE, previously under your former buddy Buff was a meek lapdog to his buddy Ralph. We shall see what happens this fall as this extremist right wing gong show gets back to it’s real work of subsidizing it’s corporate buddies.

    As is being demonstrated almost everywhere today, democracy does not survive the never-ending bowing and scraping and the incessant forelock tugging demanded by authoritarian tyrants.
    A loss of freedom and agency by one is a loss for all. Defense of one is a gain for all. Unions and associations have known this for, quite literally, for hundreds of years.
    It seems that Albertans are going to have to learn this the hard way.

  4. We have a provincial cabinet whose members operate along contradictory operating principles. Mr. Toews meddled in a bargaining process in which he he has no part. Nurses contract bargaining should take place between AHS and UNA free from third party interference. Ms. Savage when speaking of single use plastics stated that the federal government should ‘stay in your own lane’

    Both demonstrated blatant use of their leaders propensity to finger point with detrimental intent.

  5. This explains Jason Kenney’s position that there is no second wave, as new case numbers exceeded the previous record set during the first wave in April. This also explains his refusal to shut anything down again, because why would anything need to be shut down if there is no second wave? And it also explains Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s weekend Covid reminder that her guidelines for Covid prevention that are entirely voluntary, so we can do whatever we want without regard for public health. Interesting view from a public health officer.

    While governments around the globe start clamping down, and even Doug Ford has begun imposing restrictions on gyms and public dining, ideology triumphs in Kenneyland. You can’t negate the need for nurses during contract negotiations in a pandemic if you admit that you actually need them.

    As Nicholas Milliken posted today on Twitter, paying from the public purse for the health needs of senior citizens is unsustainable. So they’ll go with that. Seems they want the elderly to just die off and go away. Nurse layoffs make sense in that distorted view. Pandemic off, layoffs on. Let the old people die so we can spend less on health care. It’s just that simple to these simpletons.

    Milliken: “Chronic shortfalls spell trouble as we draw from the public purse to pay for costly social programs like childcare, expanded unemployment insurance, and healthcare for a rapidly aging population. This is not a sustainable situation.”

    1. There is no second wave. There has been an explosion of testing. On October 8th there were 14736 people tested with 25389 tests, with a 1.24% positive rate. The previous high for daily positives was April 23, with 4471 tests of 4133 people with a positive rate over 7%. The positive rate went over 2% on one single day since May 10th. By all means explain how a positive test rate that is a fraction of the peak from April constitutes this second wave. I’m still waiting for Dr. Hinshaw to explain how the highest weekly death toll this year occurred in the week ending January 25, six weeks before the first “Covid death”. Don’t take my word for it.

  6. This is a bit unrelated but I wonder if not having flu clinics this year, run by Alberta Health Services, isn’t another way that the UCP is undermining public health care. I think the clinics could have been safe with staff using really good PPE, distancing in lineups, masking of clients etc. Instead pharmacies and doctor’s offices will be inundated with people wanting the shots, shots will be delayed as a result, which could cause people to get the flu before they can get an appt. for an flu shot, and nurses are largely kept out of the equation. Will the government use this pandemic as a reason to shut down the flu clinics going forward and give the job to private healthcare industries?

    1. It wouldn’t surprise me. My employer, a subsidiary of a provincial corporation, announced a flu clinic about a month ago. “Email to sign up,” they said. Last week a new email came out: “Due to insufficient interest, the on-site flu clinic is cancelled.” HUNH?!? The 2019 clinic was cancelled by UCP decree, but before that, LOTS of us signed up every year. I suspect now that it was cancelled this year because the management–or the minister–was not interested in us taking company time to get the shot. Cheaper if the peons get it done on their own.

  7. Why am I not surprised? Start negotiating by kicking the opposition in the knee–or a bit higher. Then tell them, “You should learn to cooperate,” when they complain. That’s exactly what the UCP did to us non-health sector employees in their first year.

    I can’t find the link now (gotta bookmark these things better!), but the recent UCP policy wish list included a warning for us peons: item #3 said (paraphrase) “turn Alberta into a right-to-work province” like too many Republican states.

    That’s no surprise, either. Jason & the Klowns have been working diligently to break unions, roll back improvements in the labour (and environment) laws, and now this. It’s not incomprensible, as David Harrigan said. Worse–it’s typical. Never let reality interfere with ideology.

    Imagine the trouble we’d be in if Alberta Health Services had bulled ahead with those 750 layoffs before the pandemic. We’ll see what happens now that cases–and deaths–are rising fast. It won’t be good.

    The surprising thing is not that many doctors are thinking about leaving Oilberduh. The surprise is that so few have. I see the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta is trying (desperately, I suspect) to avoid being caught between rock-headed UCP politicians and hardening resistance from Alberta doctors:

    It must be much worse than Shandro and Kenney dare admit, if they have to put thumbscrews on the CPSA.

    I wonder how many nurses are looking at job postings elsewhere….

      1. Policy 3 is scary, as is Policy 11, put forward by the Calgary Varsity Constituency Association, which is for private healthcare. A lot of us are mobilizing against the latter (we live in Varsity, which was pretty close last time in the election, and has in the past swung NDP and Liberal (including as its partial predecessor, Calgary NW).

        In terms of Policy 3, it might be interesting to do a blog on how labour negotiations have actually gone with the UCP government in power. My union (the NDP forcibly made us a union, which was maybe not the best decisions, because it deprived us of our previous right to a unilateral recourse to binding arbitration, and also because it happened right in the middle of collective bargaining, and we had not strike fund or anything) ,which is TUCFA, had agreed a contract in 2019 with a wage reopener set to take place after the election. Built into the wage re-opener was a clause that if no settlement was reached, we would go to binding arbitration in September, with the arbitrator already named, and a minimal result of a 0 % “increase”. The government passed legislation delaying that arbitration, but it eventually took place. Our board of governors pleaded poverty due to government cuts, and tried to argue to the arbitrator that we should get a reduction, but he would have none of it. Instead he awarded a modest (1.7 %) increase, retroactive to July 1 2019. We just received our back pay. I imagine the government and board of governors are not best pleased and will take it out on us in the future. Anyway, the arbitrator’s award, available here, makes interesting reading since he actually uses the McKinnon report in support of his decision to award an increase, as well as pointing out that there is no reason why we should be paid less than profs at U of A, and that comparators to the rest of Canada, where we are falling behind, are valid considerations in an arbitration. He also gets in a kick at administrative bloat.

        I would be interested to hear how other wage reopeners, collective bargaining and arbitration decisions have gone in the last few months.


    Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, get ready for 11,000 job cuts to health services, which are not cuts at all, but “changes of employer”. Let us remember that the more than 1,000,000 Albertans who collected CERB this year were not unemployed at all, but merely “changing employers”. Changing things, like the people who clean hospitals during a pandemic, is what the UCP do best. Changing employer opportunities for wealthy UCP donors and friends of the UCP is what they do best. Get ready for more no-bid contracts. Kiss those unions goodbye

    If this is our government’s October surprise, just imagine what gifts they’ll bestow to the people of this province on Boxing Day.

  9. New headline shows Used Car Party not decimating “front line workers” in health care, but instead chopping cleaning, food prep, and other more ‘lowly’ workers. Question: who the hell will be doing this work? Is this work not that necessary? And more, do the meatheads who come up with this “thinking” believe that the nurses, most of whom are women by the way, could be doing a ‘lot more’, just like women are supposed to do when it comes to work of such ‘lowly’ status? “Dishwashing shifts for R.N.’s” will need to be a new course offered within the years of training!!!!!
    Question: Do we really think that those training to be physicians, whether within the province or from elsewhere, will choose to practise here with all the rules limiting their ‘freedoms’? Can recruiting for rural practices become even more difficult than it already is (rhetorical really)?

  10. Disaster capitalists convert disastrous leak into capital gains for private contractors. Do me fucking favour and headline with that for a fucking pogo!

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