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Alberta nurses union decries job cut threats as collective bargaining looms

EDMONTON — Alberta’s nurses union says the province is making a bad situation worse in health care by threatening in two recent letters to cut and contract out nursing jobs.

David Harrigan, with the United Nurses of Alberta, says he doubts the province has the wiggle room to cut those jobs in a system already straining under the weight of understaffed positions and crushing workloads.

But he says such threats in the midst a massive reorganization of Alberta’s health system send the message that anyone who wants to come work in it should brace for job instability.

“We're not actually concerned that they're going to be looking at laying off (nurses) because they can't,” Harrigan, the union’s director of labour relations, said in an interview Tuesday.

“There is a huge shortage (of nurses) and they're actually closing facilities because there's such a shortage.”

Earlier Tuesday, the union released two letters sent from its employers — Alberta Health Services and Covenant Health — ahead of talks to hash out a new contract when the current four-year deal expires in the spring.

Covenant Health, in a letter dated last Friday, informed the union “We will continue to consider all options available to meet our organizational needs through this process, including changes to staff mix and service redesign, contracting out, changes or repurposing of sites or relocating, reducing or ceasing the provision of services.”

Alberta Health Services, in its letter dated the same day, said with AHS being pared down to an acute care service provider, nursing jobs may fall under new oversight.

“We anticipate there will be some reductions in positions within UNA’s AHS bargaining unit flowing from the movement of functions outside of the organization,” said the letter.

Harrigan called threats to cut and contract out jobs typical “sabre-rattling” ahead of collective bargaining but said it's a self-defeating strategy when set against the larger goal of trying to entice health workers to relocate to Alberta.

“What it will do is frighten people and only ensure that very few people will consider Alberta as a place to go and work,” said Harrigan.

“It’s only going to worsen the problems that already exist.”

Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said the letters were due diligence ahead of bargaining as a good-faith reminder that the system is in flux and positions and employers may shift during reorganization.

“Front-line job protection is my No. 1 priority,” LaGrange told reporters at the legislature.

“In fact, I think we’re going to grow the front lines given the fact that we have more people in Alberta and more health needs.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the United Conservative government has broken its promise of no layoffs or contracting out during the reorganization, and says it sends an alarming message.

“We are in the midst of a nursing crisis. We are competing for nurses across this country,” Notley told reporters.

“The absolute worst way to bring nurses here and keep those important nurses here is to consistently and repeatedly threaten their jobs.”

Last month, Premier Danielle Smith announced Alberta Health Services will be broken up as part of a top-to-bottom reorganization of health care.

AHS — with 112,000 direct employees and thousands more working in labs, as physicians, and in community care facilities — will be replaced by four new service delivery organizations that will answer directly to LaGrange and cabinet.

The United Nurses of Alberta represents more than 35,000 registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and other related workers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press