(David Bajer/CBC - image credit)
Alberta Health Services disciplined nearly 800 workers who participated in a one-day wildcat strike across the province in October, numbers from their union show.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) says 771 workers are grieving letters of reprimand they received for participating in the illegal Oct. 26 walkout. Another 27 workers have filed grievances after being suspended from work for as long as five days.
AHS may have sanctioned more workers who have chosen not to file grievances, AUPE said.
"AHS has created as many grievances from one day of protest as they would normally face in two years from AUPE," Bonnie Gostola, vice-president of AUPE in a written statement.
AUPE represents about 90,000 workers, including 58,000 in health care.
Although AUPE provided data, the union did not provide a spokesperson for a follow-up interview.
President Guy Smith said last week no workers were fired as a result of the protest.
Smith said AHS has also filed an action against AUPE before the labour relations board and must prove the union had a role in organizing the walkout — an allegation union leaders deny.
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. AHS said this is standard procedure when a worker is sanctioned. If the college takes action, it could affect the nurses' abilities to work as LPNs.
Workers at hospitals and health facilities across Alberta walked off the job last year 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.
Alberta's Labour Relations Board declared the strike illegal.
The government has previously said the jobs will still exist in the private sector. It expects the move to save around $600 million a year.
Breadth of punishments 'astounding,' labour expert says
Labour scholars were taken aback by AHS penalizing hundreds of workers allegedly involved in the protest.
"When I first saw the number, it was — my jaw hit the desk. That's astounding," said Jason Foster, an associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University.
In past wildcat strikes, employers have focused their penalties on a few suspected ringleaders, or on the union representing the workers, he said.
He said AHS doling out hundreds of letters of reprimand is unprecedented.
"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.' "
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.
Alberta's finance minister, Travis Toews, has said he expects to pursue wage rollbacks for public-sector workers to curtail spending.
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.
Dealing with 800 worker grievances is going to be expensive and time consuming, Foster said.
AHS has also applied to the labour relations board to "marshal" the grievances, which would allow them to consolidate them to save money and time. A board spokesperson said a hearing date for that proposal isn't yet set.
In a written statement last week, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said a consolidated approach would "help address the unprecedented volume and similarity of grievances."
He also said dealing with the grievances would come at no additional cost to AHS, since they would be handled internally.
Before the walkout, AHS had warned staff no one would be granted amnesty for any illegal job action, Williamson said.
AHS would not say how many staff were disciplined in connection with the Oct. 26 walkout, and did not provide a reason for keeping that number secret. Williamson said the staff in all five provincial zones participated. He said sanctions were based on each worker's role in the walkout and how patient care was affected.
Government health and finance officials did not respond to questions about the sanctions or privatization plans on Monday.
While managers and union representatives deal with the glut of grievances, observers say the sanctions are likely to taint the workplace atmosphere.
Barnetson said the fallout may cause tension between workers who walked out and those who didn't, along with tense relationships between employees and managers.
As word of the reprimands spread, he said it will be harder to recruit and retain employees in positions that are already low paid and may soon disappear.
Although eliminated jobs may reappear in the private sector, it's likely their pay will be lower there, he said.
NDP labour and immigration critic Christina Gray said the government is punishing some of the lowest paid and least protected workers in the health-care system while they are already exhausted from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It is shocking, the amount of time that's going into this, the number of letters, what's happening to retaliate against these workers," she said.
She said the health system should be focused on keeping people healthy during the pandemic, not the mountain of administrative work the punishments and grievances have generated.