Health care ‘heroes’ disciplined for daring to take job actions


THE BEATINGS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES. This is not a management technique that often works. But it is the one favoured by Alberta Health Services (AHS) in the runup to negotiations with thousands of health care workers it oversees.

AHS disciplined almost 800 workers in late February. It sent letters of reprimand to 771. It handed out one to five-day work suspensions to another 27. The action came as retaliation for the workers participation in spontaneous job walkouts at numerous health care facilities across the province October 26.

The workers, all Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) members, had walked off the job for one day to protest the provincial government’s plan to privatize up to 11,000 of their jobs in laundry, patient food services, cleaning and other support roles.

A grievance sunami

AUPE says all 771 workers are grieving the letters of reprimand they received, as are the 27 workers suspended from work. AUPE represents about 58,000 health care workers.

AHS may have sanctioned more workers who have chosen not to file grievances, AUPE said.

In keeping with its usual high-handed approach, AHS refuses to confirm how many workers were disciplined. Nor will it say why it won’t.

“AHS has created as many grievances from one day of protest as they would normally face in two years from AUPE,” Bonnie Gostola, a vice-president with the union, said in a written statement.

AHS has also filed an action against AUPE itself. AHS officials claim the union took a direct role in organizing the walkouts. The union denies this.

AHS also reported penalties against eight licensed practical nurses (LPNs) to their regulatory body, the College of Licensed Practical Nurses of Alberta, according to the union. This could ultimately jeopardize their right to work in Alberta as licensed nurses.

Startling numbers

Jason Foster, an associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University. said doling out hundreds of letters of reprimand is unprecedented. “When I first saw the number—my jaw hit the desk,”said Foster.

In similar actions in the past, employers have focused their penalties on a few suspected ringleaders, or on the union representing the workers, he said.

“It’s not about these 800 workers,” he said. “I think it’s a message being sent to all the other public-sector unions. That, ‘We’re not going to tolerate this.’ “

The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), United Nurses of Alberta, and several other unions launched a “Stand up to Kenney” campaign two days after the October job actions. The unions urged workers to sign a “pledge” that they are ready to “stand up to Kenney” and would join future province-wide rallies and protests.

Future cloudy

Alberta public-sector workers are anticipating a tumultuous 2021, as the province grapples with paltry oil and gas revenues, a pandemic and a global recession.

Even if the government is firing warning shots to workers, they may be angry enough to ignore them, said Bob Barnetson, an Athabasca University labour relations professor.

“I think when workers go on an illegal strike it is an action they rarely take lightly,” he said. “They literally have no other recourse than to put down their tools.”

Both professors said pursuing disciplinary action against so many workers is a poor tactic that could backfire.

The UCP government shows no signs of backing off. It brought in an austerity budget February 25 with a provision to reduce the province’s annual public sector wage bill by $700 million or 3.5 percent by 2024. When inflation is taken into account, the total cut will be in the order of 10 percent.

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