Alberta Politics
Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews, front-man for both the UCP’s nurses’ wage rollbacks and teachers’ pension policies (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta).

Kenney Government suddenly backs away from long-brewing big battles with nurses and teachers

Posted on September 09, 2021, 12:58 am
8 mins

Alberta’s United Conservative Party Government has suddenly retreated from controversial battles with nurses and teachers that were a priority for Premier Jason Kenney and his inner circle almost since their election in the spring on 2019.

Over the Labour Day weekend, a representative of the Alberta Health Services bargaining committee contacted the United Nurses of Alberta to say the employer had a new mandate from the government to amend their bargaining proposal before starting formal mediation under the Alberta Labour Relations Code.

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

When the sides met online Tuesday to discuss the new employer bargaining position, most of the rollbacks demanded by the government since the recommendations of Janice MacKinnon’s “Blue Ribbon Panel” in August 2019 set the stage for a big fight with public sector unions had disappeared.

Gone was the plan to immediately cut the pay of the Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses represented by UNA by 3 per cent, followed by years of zeros. Also gone were most of the major rollbacks to contract provisions that would have gutted the nurses’ collective agreement.

This fight is not over. The government still wants to eliminate lump-sum payments that would cost nurses about 2 per cent in annual salary, and it continues to seek significant changes to contract language. So there is still hard bargaining ahead. And nurses, exhausted from a year and a half fighting COVID-19, are still furious at the direction negotiations took.

But if not quite a surrender, the new AHS bargaining position is a significant retreat from where it stood just a week ago. 

“UNA was pleased that the new employer bargaining position dropped several offensive proposals, but we will continue our effort in negotiations to reach an agreement that will address the critical problem of attrition and retention now faced by AHS in every part of the province,” UNA Labour Relations Director David Harrigan said in a statement yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Alberta Teachers Association announced yesterday that late last week it had reached an agreement with the government to ensure the Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund would “remain in full control of strategic investment policies for teacher pensions.”

The new agreement between ATRF and the Alberta Investment Management Corp., better known as AIMCo, replaced an “agreement” imposed by Finance Minister Travis Toews in December. The veto AIMCo would have had over ATRF decisions is kaput. 

Alberta Teachers Association President Jason Schilling (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

“This is a huge victory for teachers,” said ATA President Jason Schilling in a news release. 

Since the ATA has achieved everything it hoped to get by suing the government over the arbitrary agreement that was hugely unpopular with teachers, the release said, “the association will be discontinuing its legal challenge.”

There may be more to come. There are other public sector unions from which the UCP also hoped for major takeaways. And other public sector pension plans that are not happy about the requirement to invest through AIMCo. 

Nevertheless, it’s obvious the government has blinked in the past few days – perhaps so hard it looks like the finance minister has sand in his eyes!

What happened? 

Undoubtedly, the pandemic is a big part of the story. 

On top of everything else, COVID-19 has thrown health care facilities and schools into chaos. The Kenney Government’s counter-productive response to the pandemic is deeply unpopular, as is the premier himself. Recent polling suggests that if an election were held tomorrow, the NDP Opposition led by former premier Rachel Notley would win handily.

Opposition Leader and former Alberta premier Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

For her part, Ms. Notley called the government’s effort to slash nurses’ wages during an international nurse shortage and a pandemic “beyond idiotic.” 

“We’re actually now at a point of pure incompetence,” she exclaimed.

The fight with nurses, the chronic staffing shortages in Alberta hospitals, and the hurried reopening of schools are all perceived by Albertans as part of that misconceived COVID response. 

On top of everything else, it seems highly unlikely the government could have survived a labour dispute with either nurses or teachers. 

In a way, it was unlike this government to realize that. Most governments would have executed a strategic retreat from such untenable positions months ago. But so far in its short history, the UCP doesn’t seem to have considered normal political calculations when setting its major policies, only its leaders’ ideological preconceptions. This has led to more than one undignified retreat. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, once again missing in action (Photo: Facebook).

The provincial electoral timetable is certainly part of this story too. An election may not be scheduled until the spring of 2023, but the months in which the UCP has the time to engage in difficult fights would be rapidly running out now even without a fourth wave of COVID leaving the province with the highest infection rate and caseload in Canada, packed hospitals and ICUs, beds empty because there are no nurses to care for their waiting occupants, and furious patients requiring treatment for other conditions who are told they’ll just have to wait. 

And – who knows? – maybe even the federal election may have something to do with it. 

Federal Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole’s stature is not exactly being helped by Premier Kenney’s belligerent policies, evident mishandling of the biggest health care crisis in a century, and deep unpopularity and distrust among voters. 

One imagines Mr. Kenney didn’t want to have to wear the blame for a loss by Mr. O’Toole, either. This would certainly explain the premier’s latest, post-holiday disappearance.

Whatever the reason, the UCP’s radical agenda for Alberta appears to be in retreat – at least for now. 

18 Comments to: Kenney Government suddenly backs away from long-brewing big battles with nurses and teachers

  1. Dave

    September 9th, 2021

    As Kenney Rogers famously said, “You got to know when to fold em …”. As said, arguably the UCP should have retreated on these matters some time ago. I think in their defense, they are very slow learners and generally extraordinarily resistant to seeing the flaws in their actions.

    However, in this case I think it has become overwhelmingly evident they can not fight a many front war, while COVID is still a major problem. In particular, there is little public support for their fight against nurses and if the UCP continued, they would also likely take full blame for any resulting problems faced by the struggling health care system.

    With the teachers, it is not such a high profile public issue. I suppose there is a year or two for the UCP to try win back some support here. However, I have to wonder if their latest pauses of belligerence are just brief tactical retreats or a sign of the end of the Kenney era.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 9th, 2021

      I think we’re all wondering the same thing about what this means, Dave. Maybe they’ve decided their hill to die on is that execrable primary school social studies curriculum! DJC

      Reply
    • Anonymous

      September 9th, 2021

      DAVE: All this is just coincidental. There is a federal election coming up. If the UCP attacks nurses, or thinks they can go into private for profit healthcare in Alberta, they will be seeing the CPC get crushed in the next federal election. This has been played out before, under premier Ralph Klein. The CPC lost a federal election, when Ralph Klein began publicly musing about changing healthcare delivery in Alberta, which included having private for profit healthcare. Canadians saw that and didn’t allow the CPC to attain power. The CPC were disgusted with Ralph Klein.

      Reply
      • Scotty on Denman

        September 9th, 2021

        I’m not sure I’d make such a direct link between the 2004 federal election and Alberta’s health care policy proposal. No doubt the newly-formed HarperCons (only a year old yet) were strongly associated with the province, enough, perhaps, for voters to speculate on how Premier Klein’s proposal might translate to federal policy, but it was, after all, only a proposal, one that Klein was forced by public outcry to withdraw (so begrudgingly he resigned soon after); and there were other significant factors, as well, not least the generally restless federal electorate which manifest in three back-to-back minority governments, the second being Harper’s first government in 2006.

        I’ll grant that, in 2004, Canadian voters didn’t yet know how little love they’d ever develop for the HarperCons, and that their speculative connection between federal and Alberta healthcare policies might have been made too feverishly: Klein’s proposal, being only that, would have run into the unavoidable fact, had he tried to realize it, that healthcare policy, while administered provincially, is predominantly controlled by the feds. But that’s a tad too sophisticated for most voters to avoid being sucked into misplaced, righteous indignation.

        I think other, bigger factors contributed to the HarperCon’s 2004 loss: their association with the Western Reform movement which tore apart the federal ProgCon government and party, and the broad political alliances it had achieved, especially between Quebec and english-speaking Canada (precipitating a separatist referendum in Quebec which only very narrowly lost); Harper’s bellicose Firewall letter; his predecessor Stockwell Day’s reputation; the new party’s American-style jingoism; comparisons with the tax-cutting/service slashing consequences of BC’s first neo-right government (the far right BC “Liberal” party) which were just coming home to roost in 2004; and many other small nuances of a party which only won in 2006 by default and left voters tepid—even at its zenith, its sole and final majority— throughout its regime.

        That said, I don’t doubt that Kenney’s policy attitude towards healthcare workers is unhelpful for O’Toole’s campaign. But, similarly, there are plenty of other factors wafting from Alberta that probably have as much or more impact than healthcare, at least in the rustic mind of the simple, Canadian voter. That leads to, IMHO, O’Toole’s struggle to make the CPC, once totally dominated by the Western Reformers and infested with far-right elements recruited to keep it so, moderate enough to win government—a much, much longer and complicated part of the whole, sorry, neo-right chapter now just coming to the end of the book.

        Reply
  2. Anonymous

    September 9th, 2021

    What do I sense here? It’s simple. The UCP are in pre election mode, and they are trying to make it so the CPC will not get dumped on September 20. These pretend conservatives and Reformers do not respect nurses and teachers in Alberta. Ralph Klein certainly didn’t. He laid off so many of them too. This was because he was doing the total opposite of what Peter Lougheed was doing. When you have collect horrible oil royalties, have such bad tax policies that forfeit billions of dollars more, and keep doing the most pricey shenanigans, nurses and teachers are an easy target. The UCP will still come after nurses and teachers in Alberta. I wouldn’t put it past the UCP to do so.

    Reply
  3. Just Me

    September 9th, 2021

    I suggest that these sudden retreats are an indication that the UCP is softening it’s position because … 1) the lawsuits coming down the pipe are unwinable and murderous in their bad optics and 2) Kenney will soon be gone.

    Premier Crying & Screaming Midget is so done with Alberta, he’s already gone. That is if there’s a PM Erin O’Toole in a few weeks. Kenney, always the gambler, has set his sights on higher and better office and a CPC government can make that happen.

    However, given Kenney’s amazing skill for fokkin things up, this maybe another case of Kenney counting his eggs before his hens are slaughtered. If that’s the case, I expect to see Kenney pull another full-blown tantrum followed by a deep dive into his mountain of cough syrup.

    Reply
  4. !?

    September 9th, 2021

    One wonders where all the election goodie cash is going to come from now that the AIMCo tap has been turned off.

    Reply
  5. Jay-El

    September 9th, 2021

    Hello David:

    The first use of “ATRF” is a little jumbled “ARTF”.

    Reply
  6. Bob Raynard

    September 9th, 2021

    Bob is daydreaming out loud again…

    When the federal election was called, some observers speculated that the CPC could lose some of the seats it currently holds in Alberta, because of Jason Kenney’s unpopularity. Polls suggest that if some Liberal voters in Edmonton Griesbach could be convinced to switch their vote to NDP, we could be rid of Kerry Diotte. Edmonton Millwoods, currently represented by Ottawa resident Tim Uppal, could easily go Liberal as it did in 2015, especially given the popularity of former councillor Ben Henderson. A couple of other ridings in Edmonton and Calgary could also be in play; they went Liberal in 2015, and this time Jason Kenney’s unpopularity has replaced the WE scandal. A recent flyer from NDP candidate in Edmonton Strathcona, Heather McPherson, starts with “Like Jason Kenney, Erin O’Toole will…”

    At the same time, on the national level, polls are showing the CPC in better shape than they were when the election was called.

    This creates a plausible scenario where seats lost in Alberta cost the CPC the election. It is a long shot, but I am really enjoying the mental image.

    Tangentially related, I have noticed some CPC lawn signs are using the phrase ‘Canada’s Conservatives’. When I pointed it out to my wife, she immediately speculated that they are trying to distance themselves from Jason Kenney. I am wondering if some of our non-Albertan commenters have seen the same phrase on CPC signs outside of Alberta.

    Reply
    • Abs

      September 9th, 2021

      Bob, federal election signs of any kind are notably absent in my neighborhood. This riding gave the CPC a landslide victory in the 2019 federal election and a landslide victory to the UCP in the 2019 provincial election. It is a riding that stretches from one end of the city almost to the other, in a strange, jerrymandered way. It’s hard to say if this is the case in the rest of the riding. This could mean that residents of my community have cooled off toward conservatives, and that the usual landslide might be reduced. Mind you, a horse could run as a Conservative in this highly-engineered riding and win. This might explain the current interest in Ivermectin.

      Reply
  7. brett

    September 9th, 2021

    No surprise. However I believe that it is too late for back peddling. The damage has already been done. What’s more, I believe a majority of voters have seen it.

    All but the most ardent UCP supporters must realize that Kenney is toxic. His UCP Government is toxic. So much so that Ministers such as Allard, Shandro, and Savage are staying well away as a far back as they can from the public.

    The only ones yapping are those UCP MLA’s who are dissenters. But they are the ones who know their voters and are abandoning their Party line in the hope of keeping their seats in the next election. For them….it is about survival. They can see the writing on the wall.

    Reply
  8. Abs

    September 9th, 2021

    There is trouble brewing in the schools over the lack of a provincial-wide health mandate for children, especially those under 12 who cannot be vaccinated.

    Yesterday’s Twitter revealed a letter-writing campaign to school principals. Parents are withdrawing permission from specific activities at schools when masks are removed, such as eating lunch indoors. They are demanding that their children eat outdoors when weather allows, or eat lunch with their parent in a vehicle when weather is inclement. It doesn’t stop there. Permission is also withdrawn for participation in physical education, music, and even sitting in a classroom where anyone is unmasked. You can imagine the havoc this would create if 30 other parents in a classroom also withdrew permission for certain activities.

    In B.C., parents at one school held a boycott, with almost all of the students absent for a day in protest of a teacher who was unmasked in the school by a mask exemption. Here in Alberta, that would trigger an outbreak alert, even if nobody knew why the students were absent.

    Parents have learned from anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers that only the squeaky wheels get greased. Probably greasing palms with $100 was the beginning of this.

    The protests against the new school curriculum have also begun. Parents have been pushed to the limits of their tolerance. Grassroots revolt is here.

    Reply
  9. Carlos

    September 9th, 2021

    This is all so absurd that no one really knows what is going on in this province anymore other than the FACT that the UCP is completely INCOMPETENT.

    Reply
  10. Just Me

    September 9th, 2021

    I recall a piece in The Economist that asked the question few dare ask: are overweight politicians more corrupt?

    https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/07/30/are-overweight-politicians-less-trustworthy

    While there is no way that one could apply this judgement consistently with equally affirmative results (Yes, fat porkers are constantly on the take.) one looks at this UCP crowd and has to wonder about what was proposed in the article.

    Remembering my encounters with the various persons (usually always male) during my time among the RPC/CRAP/CA crowds, the one thing I remember, apart from all the heavy-drinking, was that they were a pretty portly bunch. Myself, always being health conscious and inclined to exercise regularly, was something of the outlier in the group. I would take the stairs while they would cram their overweight bulks into elevators, or I would happily walk four or five blocks, while they opted to crowd themselves into a cab. And don’t get me started on the buffet meals and the tendency for open-bars. There was no doubt, in my mind, that I was among those who were at high-risk for diabetes, heart disease, morbid obesity, hyper-tension, various cancers, and a host of other aliments, both physical and psychological. Finally getting away from them permanently assuredly added decades to my life, apart from changing my over all worldview.

    Just looking at Kenney and following his behaviour, he would be a textbook example of, what CONs often call, the pig-at-the-trough sort of politician. It should be apparent to anyone that he is a passionate glutton for food, drink, avarice, and power. Referring to an article in one of the Postmedia rags, Kenney’s handlers often express concern over his physical health, citing frequent and explosive weight gains and losses, occurring depending on moods. I person who is that thin-skinned and prone to fits of anger, depression, and binge behaviour may find that karma has a big anvil-drop waiting for them.

    Alberta has a consummate runner and reasonable person in Premier Rachel Notley, once. I guess Alberta voters love their fatties.

    Reply
  11. JS bow valley

    September 9th, 2021

    I would love to see someone ask Ohh…tool what he would do for provinces whose elected officials appear to have abandoned everyone during a global pandemic. I suspect his answer would be as forthcoming as the UCP on this course change. Have been reading your work for years and would like to say thanks, I really appreciate it.

    Reply
  12. Mike J Danysh

    September 9th, 2021

    It looks like someone found a big enough cluestick to get through to Kenney et al. I really didn’t think we’d see this. Reality reared its ugly head, and this time refused to be ignored.

    I’m pretty sure there’s more to the UCP intransigence than incompetence. They display a kind of invincible stupidity that goes far beyond ignorance or shallow-minded, simplistic “answers” that don’t work. Duane Bratt has pointed out that the most unpopular decisions by the UCP were caused by an ideological framework that’s out of touch with Albertans’ values.

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/kenney-political-ideology-1.6167303

    Kenney in particular is clearly wedded to a Republican—maybe even Libertarian–viewpoint, and has surrounded himself with like-minded cabinet ministers. He only deviated from the True Faith during the first wave of Covid-19. Deferring to professional advice, Kenney decreed a partial lockdown, with non-essential services temporarily closed. That HAD to hurt; see the Yahoo News story linked in Bratt’s piece.

    When the first “wave” turned out to be a ripple, Kenney decided he could ignore the warnings of experts. The results we all know.

    But the strangest aspect of this mess is how Kenney’s attitude seems better suited to an earlier, simpler time. It’s almost like he’s trying to live in the 1950s, and dragging the province backward with him. That might be popular in small-town Alberta, but it just doesn’t fly in urban areas. The myth of the “rugged individuals, facing into the storm” is comforting, but it’s not a blizzard we’re facing now. It’s a (hopefully!) once-a-century global pandemic, and our world is way more complex than it was in the “Good Ol’ Days.”

    I wonder what happened to force Kenney to admit he was wrong.

    Reply
  13. Neil Lore

    September 10th, 2021

    Anyone else remember when Jason Kenney was considered to be a potential prime minister?

    I can’t help but notice that as soon as he got a job more difficult than saying, “Yes, Mr. Harper,” his competence dropped enormously.

    I wonder how many other Conservative politicians are perceived as competent because they’ve never had to do (the political equivalent of) an honest day’s work, and so never revealed themselves to be profoundly useless?

    Reply
  14. Scotty on Denman

    September 11th, 2021

    Perhaps because conservatism has featured so largely in world drama, especially lately in the throes of its most menacing variant, neo-rightism—the globalizing neoliberal movement that usurped most traditional, Tory-style conservative parties since the Soviet collapse—we forget that the UCP is barely adolescent, a little, bitty puppy yet only halfway through its very first mandate: while tRump was sicking his mob on the Capitol, Kenney was still tearing up slippers and toilet paper.

    So, does this sudden UCP policy retreat indicate a rite of passage like house-breaking a puppy or giving him something less valuable or messy to chew on? Passing this milestone couldn’t wait much longer if the party is to contemplate pulling out of its current, dizzying tailspin. Still, it’s hard to imagine how any party which has so resolutely blown off the stark metrics of political failure could even recognize, let alone implement, a change in course it never should have taken in the first place.

    The UCP’s adjustments are more like complete reversals than mere interpolations charting a course—which shouldn’t be altogether too embarrassing for a party dedicated to the reversal social progress. But are the adjustments sincere? First, let us assume UCP gormlessness is genuinely sincere and, accounting for its adolescent incompetence, not entirely unrelated to the facts that its popularity has tanked so precipitously, along with that of its leader, it would lose an election if it were held today and will have hard time winning seats in the next scheduled contest two years hence, it has assiduously courted the opprobrium of its co-federates, and its caucus, membership, and voters are on the verge of splitting apart. Oh, and that Covid thing—don’t forget that! Nowadays, inclusivity means everybody gets a star, so congratulations, UCP! Gold star! It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong and you didn’t miss a trick! Bravo!

    Since the premier and founder of the UCP, most singular of these political metrics, appears to have disappeared as a courtesy to CPC leader Erin O’Toole now campaigning in the federal election, the sincerity of these little capitulations has to be in question: who is considered most?—the nurses and teachers?—the CPC?—the UCP? Or Jason Kenney?

    Are these tinkerings significant? Since the principle reversals do not include all areas of contention, nor all details within each, and since they only peripherally involve Alberta’s and the UCP’s predominant problem, Covid, we can only wonder. A lot of hard feelings have been cultivated which aren’t likely to be turned off like a light switch.

    I think the reversals, such as they are and as sincere as they might turn out, are significant, yes, but not really of contrition. The UCP cultivates a redoubt or bunker mentality of being constantly under siege: inside their circled wagon laager, partisanship means unquestioned loyalty, not development of policy by reasoned consensus between like-minded people—and that means constant campaigning like tRump did, continuously from 2011, when he began propagating his “birtherism” lie, to this very day, eleven months after losing his re-election bid.

    I don’t see any reason to suggest the UCP isn’t more concerned about its own re-election bid than it is about nurses or teachers. It’s at the halfway point in its maiden mandate, time to stop blaming rivals for every problem the UCP has fumbled, time to turn around and start blaming rivals for every problem the UCP will fabulate.

    The dearth of premierial sightings and Covid citings do not suggest the UCP is changing its notion of politics. The 4,000 ton Covid buffalo in the room has to be ignored for a successful re-election ploy to work. It seems impossible the same could apply to the premier—unless, of course, nobody knows who he or she is for a convenient while.

    Reply

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