UCP halts nurses' wage talks, citing ongoing review of Alberta's finances

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews says halting arbitration on nurses’ salary talks is the responsible thing to do, but he won’t confirm if the government will seek wage rollbacks.

Arbitration hearing on Monday postponed at government's request

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews said postponing an arbitration hearing on nurses wages in the current three-year contract while the government is looking into Alberta's financial situation is the responsible thing to do. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews says halting arbitration on nurses' salary talks is the responsible thing to do, but he won't confirm if the government will seek wage rollbacks.

"We've made no decisions," Toews said Tuesday. "We're simply understanding the realities that we're faced with today."

On Monday, an arbitrator was set to hear arguments from the United Nurses of Alberta and employers Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health, Lamont Health Care Centre and the Bethany Group on a wage settlement for the final year of the current three-year contract. 

But according to UNA labour relations director David Harrigan, right before the hearing, employer representatives said the government wanted the hearing postponed and the arbitrator had agreed. 

Under the contract, the hearing was supposed to take place by the end of June but no date has been set. 

Toews confirmed with reporters prior to Tuesday's cabinet meeting at the Alberta legislature that the government put the arbitration on hold until the current fact-finding mission on the province's finances is complete.

That process includes a report from the blue ribbon panel chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon expected by Aug. 15, and the government's own discussions with public sector wages. 

In October 2017, MacKinnon co-wrote a paper for the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary which discussed implementing a two-per-cent wage rollback for public sector employees and how they can be legislated even if unions disagree. 

Harrigan believes this is the path the government is headed towards.

"There's already a road map, and they've already written it," Harrigan said. "The UCP MLAs haven't even been sworn-in and they're already breaching contractual obligations."

Edmonton-Mill Woods MLA Christina Gray, who was labour minister under the previous NDP government, said the UCP is playing a "dangerous game" by interfering with a collective bargaining process they are not a party to. 

"The road the government is going down now leads to mistrust with frontline workers and possible job action," Gray said. 

Following Monday's postponement, the UNA filed a request with the Alberta Labour Relations board asking for a new arbitrator and for a hearing to be held by the end of June. 

The union has also filed grievances against Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health and the other employers involved in the contract. 

The Alberta Federation of Labour supports the UNA's application to the labour relations board.

In a news release Tuesday, AFL president Gil McGowan said the UCP government is taking "the first step towards using state power to unilaterally cut wages."

The AFL is asking the government to not break the law, McGowan said. "It's one thing for governments to obtain a wage freeze through negotiations with unions and workers; it's another thing to impose those freezes without negotiation."

The UNA's current three-year contract expires on March 31, 2020, and covers 30,000 Alberta nurses. The agreement has wage freezes for the first two years and a provision to revisit the wage issue in the final year.

Talks to resolve the wage issue ended in stalemate so an arbitrator was appointed. 


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