Around 70 AUPE staffers began picketing along 104 Avenue in Westlock around 8 a.m., carrying placards and waiving signs to protest the privatization of the equivalent of 9,700 full time health service jobs, which Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro says will save $600 million annually. In his Oct. 13 press conference, Shandro said the majority of jobs lost will come from outsourcing in laboratories, housekeeping, food services, and laundry and further estimated that approximately 800 jobs will disappear due to attrition. Another 4,000 housekeeping jobs, 3,000 food service jobs, 2,000 laboratory jobs, 400 laundry jobs and at least 100 management jobs are also expected to be axed in the proposed cuts.
AUPE Local 43, Chapter 6 chair Brenda Lussier, who was also the strike captain, said their demands of the province start with protecting public health care and include job protection, no rollbacks to wages or benefits, appropriate staffing ratios, no outsourcing of laundry, housekeeping or dietary services and no cuts to shift differential. Local 43, Chapter 6 covers auxiliary nursing, but members from Local 56, including the general support services chair, also joined in.
“We’re standing up for public health care,” said Lussier, a Westlock native, to the honks of vehicles passing the picketers. “I’m thrilled by the support we’ve received so far. It’s time we stand up for our rights. We’re heroes and then we’re zeros … that’s how we feel. We want to protect the public and we don’t want anyone to suffer because of our decision to walk, but there are provisions in place.
“We need Shandro and Mr. Kenney to come to table. We want to negotiate with them.”
AUPE northeast region vice-president Mike Dempsey, who lives in Lac La Biche, and is from Local 5 - Forestry Management, was coming to Westlock also, but had attended a similar picket in Athabasca first thing in the morning. He confirmed that Barrhead members had walked out, as have those in Whitecourt, while similar scenes played out in Edmonton, Calgary and other hospitals in the province.
“This affects the members, it affects their families, it affects communities. A year ago, at convention, we passed a motion unanimously that if anybody felt they had to take action to protect their jobs we would support them,” said Dempsey.
“So, this has been building for months and finally, it just hit an organic tipping point. We had a whole bunch of local leaders in Calgary and Edmonton and Athabasca tell us this time we're going out and we're going out in a couple of days. And that day is today.”
The Alberta Federation of Labour and all of its affiliate unions, both public and private, will also be joining the picket lines to show support for striking workers, according to a media release from the organization.
AFL president Gil McGowan said the cuts being made to front-line services and workers puts Albertans at risk.
“The UCP and their corporate backers have money and the power of the Legislature on their side. Workers are fighting back by withdrawing their labour because someone has to stand up to Kenney and the other ideological bullies in the UCP,” said McGowan. “What they’re doing to our health care system during a pandemic is not in the public interest, and it’s not what Albertans voted for.”
AHS and minister respond
In a media statement, AHS said all sites remain open but some surgeries and ambulatory care clinics are being postponed.
It said it is redeploying non-union staff, including managers, wherever possible to cover for missing staff. AHS said it has reached out to staff to ask them to return to work.
"AHS is responding quickly to illegal strike action by Alberta Union of Provincial Employees staff at various sites across the province," the statement said.
"We are doing all we can to address any interruptions to patient care caused by this illegal job action. Our focus is on ensuring patients continue to receive the care and treatment they need.
"Patients will be contacted directly if their appointments are affected. Visitors may be limited at some sites depending on the level of strike action."
In a separate release, finance minister Travis Toews said that the people involved "will be held accountable" and that patients have been put at risk.
"My expectation is that all unions respect the bargaining process, stop putting Albertans' safety at risk and abide by the law," he said, and brought up that 42 per cent of the provincial budget goes to health care.
This story has been updated to include minister Toews' statement.
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