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Finance Minister, United Nurses spar over labour negotiation timeline

Grande Prairie-Wapiti MLA and Minister of Finance Travis Toews says he is disappointed with the United Nurses of Alberta, after the union rejected a request from the provincial government, as well as Alberta Health Services, to delay ongoing labour negotiations.

According to Toews, the request was to postpone public sector negotiations until at least March 31, 2021. He says given the fact the province is still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, negotiations would be a distraction and could potentially result in disruptions and instability within the health care system.

“The government effectively reached out to the UNA [to] request that we delay negotiations and as part of our request we indicated that we would provide job security as well during that time so that nobody had to fear that they were going to be laid off unduly.”

“We believe our focus right now within the realm of health care should be on providing excellent health care to Albertans at a time when we still have a cloud of COVID-19 over the province,” he adds.

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Toews says he is extremely disappointed with union leadership, suggesting that the United Nurses of Alberta has rejected stability during a pandemic.

“AHS offered job security during the pandemic in exchange for a pause in negotiations… UNA had agreed to the same delay twice since the start and midway through the pandemic,” he says. “UNA’s overreaching and disingenuous demand for indefinite job security is a shameful effort to take advantage of a health crisis.”

UNA Labour Relations Director David Harrigan argues exactly the opposite to be the case.

“It is simply untrue that UNA is seeking ‘indefinite job security,'” says Harrigan. “We proposed that the current no-layoff letter of understanding continue until a new collective agreement is reached.”

In a statement posted to the UNA’s website, Harrigan says Minister Toews is to be held accountable for “generating considerable uncertainty in the health care system.”

“I don’t have to tell Albertans that ‘stability’ doesn’t look like out-of-work nurses, short-staffed hospitals, and burnt out health care workers in the middle of a pandemic,” says Harrigan.

Negotiations were prompted following a November 29, 2019 proposal from AHS to the UNA, to initiate an “Operational Best-Practice” approach, which was estimated to have a workplace impact of 500 positions. The UNA estimated the move would mean at least 750 registered front-line and psychiatric nurses would lose their jobs, once job-sharing was factored in.

Harrigan adds Minister Toews made accusations in a public statement, suggesting UNA’s leadership is “[forcing] uncertainty,” not only on its members but all Albertans.

“Mr. Toews needs to tone down the rhetoric and stop insulting the group of workers who are keeping the health care system running through this crisis,” says Harrigan.

Last month, the UNA had suggested returning to the bargaining table on October 16th, though that proposal was rejected by AHS.

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