Striking Alberta health workers voting on deal

Many people in Alberta waited anxiously Thursday night as 10,000 health care workers voted on a mediator's proposal to end their illegal strike.

Results could be announced as early as 2 a.m. ET Friday. If workers ratify the deal, the union says its walkout, which has caused chaos at some hospitals and clinics across the province, will end.

Regional health boards, which employ the workers, were also expected to vote on the tentative agreement Thursday night. They will have to endorse it as well.

Licensed practical nurses are being offered a 16 per cent salary increase over two years, as well as higher premiums for working nights and weekends. The nurses had asked for about 21 per cent.

The other employees, including ambulance attendants and hospital support staff, would receive raises of between eight and 14 per cent.

Under the deal, all union members except the president would receive amnesty from legal action for taking part in the illegal strike. The union itself could also be fined.

Alberta's Minister of Labour, Clint Dunford, said he's optimistic the mediator's recommendations will settle the illegal strike.

The breakthough in negotiations came after almost 24 hours of non-stop talks.

Thousands of health care workers at 159 hospitals and clinics went on strike Wednesday, despite a court order requiring most of them to stay on the job.

As mediation talks continued, health officials threatened to go to court to get workers back on the job. They considered asking for fines, jail sentences, and even the decertification of the union.

In the late 1980s, nurses in Alberta were fined $400,000 for contempt after walking out for 19 days.

During the latest strike, hospitals were forced to cancel elective surgery and send some patients home early.

The main issue in the dispute was money. The union said the illegal strike was necessary because it was getting nowhere in contract talks.

The province had offered a three per cent raise per year to licensed practical nurses for two years. But the union said that wasn't good enough. It says its members are the second-lowest paid in Canada.

Practical nurses in Alberta earn $12 to $15 an hour.

Premier Ralph Klein predicted a deal would be reached Thursday.

Klein, who's in Brandon, Manitoba, for a western premiers' conference, said his government didn't want to bring in back-to-work legislation.