Nurses wage talks halted by government as 'responsible thing to do'

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews says halting arbitration on nurses’ salary talks is the responsible thing to do, but he won’t confirm if the government will seek wage rollbacks.

“We’ve made no decisions,” Toews said. “We’re simply understanding the realities that we’re faced with today.”

On Monday, an arbitrator was set to hear arguments from the United Nurses Association and employers Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health, Lamont Health Care Centre and the Bethany Group on a wage settlement for the final year of the current three-year contract. 

But according to UNA labour relations director David Harrigan, right before the hearing, employer representatives said the government wanted the hearing postponed and the arbitrator had agreed. 

Under the contract, the hearing was supposed to take place by the end of June but no date has been set. 

Toews confirmed with reporters prior to Tuesday’s cabinet meeting at the Alberta legislature that the government put the arbitration on hold until the current fact finding mission on the province’s finances is complete.

That process includes a report from the blue ribbon panel chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon expected by Aug. 15, and the government’s own discussions with public sector wages. 

In October 2017, MacKinnon co-wrote a paper for the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary which discussed implementing a two-per-cent wage rollback for public sector employees and how they can be legislated even if unions disagree. 

Harrigan believes this is the path the government is headed towards.

“There’s already a road map, and they’ve already written it,” Harrigan said. “The UCP MLAs haven’t even been sworn-in and they’re already breaching contractual obligations.”

Following Monday’s postponement, the UNA filed a request with the Alberta Labour Relations board asking for a new arbitrator and for a hearing to be held by the end of June.

The UNA’s current three-year contract expires on March 31, 2020, and covers 30,000 Alberta nurses. The agreement has wage freezes for the first two years and a provision to revisit the wage issue in the final year.

Talks to resolve the wage issue ended in stalemate so an arbitrator was appointed. 

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