What Alberta’s finance minister isn’t telling you about negotiations with nurses

Travis Toews doesn’t like that Alberta nurses asked for a 7% wage increase over 4 years, but he’s not telling you the whole story.

Earlier this week, Travis Toews, Alberta’s finance minister, posted a response to recent proposals submitted by the United Nurses of Alberta.

UNA had been negotiating with Alberta Health Services to delay contract negotiations until next March. The intent was to accommodate demands placed on the healthcare system during the pandemic.

A deal to delay negotiations couldn’t be reached, but Toews framed it as being exclusively the fault of the UNA, focusing on their request for what he calls a 7% pay increase. He completely ignored AHS’s failure to accept proposals from the UNA.

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The UNA agreed in principal to delay the negotiations, but wanted to make it conditional on these 2 points:

  • No position eliminations via attrition during the pandemic
  • No additional rollbacks when negotiations commence after next March

The union also proposed settling the collective agreement for the next 4 years with terms similar to what the Saskatchewan nurses received in their agreement on Sunday.

In a since deleted news release, the UNA had indicated on Monday that the Saskatchewan deal, which still must be ratified by workers and the employer, basically renewed the previous collective agreement with some minor corrections.

It also indicated that the Saskatchewan deal, if ratified, would give nurses there a 1% increase this year (retroactive to 1 April), and 2% every April 1 between 2021 and 2023.

The release also pointed out that BC nurses signed a 3-year contract last year, with 2% increases every year and an agreement to fill hundreds of vacant nursing positions.

So, while it’s true that the UNA was asking for a 7% increase—well, technically 7.18% when you account for increases on increases—over 4 years, it was misleading for Toews to present it as a 7% increase, rather than 1% this year and 2% increases in subsequent years. Wording it this way implies that they’re asking for 7% every year, without explicitly saying it.

Settling for terms similar to those the Saskatchewan government agreed to would have “brought labour peace” until 2024, according to a letter from David Harrigan, director of labour relations with UNA. It would have also allowed the government to—using Toews’ words—“continue to focus on the pandemic and keeping Albertans safe.”

Instead, Alberta may see labour unrest.

Nurses here in Alberta face possible layoffs, or increased workload as a result of layoffs, while their counterparts in both neighbouring provinces are guaranteed job security and the ability to provide for their families for the next several years. As a result, the UNA is “very concerned [that nurses will] seek employment elsewhere”.

This of course will exacerbate the problem of staff shortages and overwhelming workloads.

One final note.

At the end of his statement, Toews claimed that “Alberta’s nurses are compensated approximately 8.1% more than their Western Canadian peers.”

I can’t confirm that, but let’s assume it’s accurate. There’s a reason for that.

Alberta has the highest wages in the country. Here’s a look at the 2018 median wage for all the provinces:

Median income
British Columbia$36,700
Prince Edward Island$34,500
New Brunswick$34,300
Newfoundland and Labrador$33,800
Nova Scotia$33,800
Based on 2018 Statistics Canada data

As we can see, Alberta has the highest median income of all the provinces in Canada. The median income for the country is $36,400. That means that Alberta’s median income is about 12.1% higher than the country’s median income.

It’s 6.8% higher than Saskatchewan’s, 11.2% higher than BC’s, and 13% higher than Manitoba’s. For reference, halfway between 6.8% and 13% is 9.9%.

Toews suggests that Alberta nurses are already overpaid compared to other Western Canadian provinces. But relative to median wage, it seems they’re underpaid.

Alberta nurses should be paid at least 10% more than nurses in the other 3 provinces.

Compared to those provinces, Alberta nurses are underpaid, have no job security, and face increased workloads.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

2 replies on “What Alberta’s finance minister isn’t telling you about negotiations with nurses”

Just for clarity – in addition to No position eliminations via attrition during the pandemic, we did not propose “No rollbacks when negotiations commence after next March.” – We proposed no ADDITIONAL rollbacks be proposed by the employer. Essentially, that that the employer would agree to bargaining in good faith and not take advantage of the agreement to delay. It was rejected out of hand.

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