Alberta healthcare workers fight privatization with wildcat strike

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Hundreds walk off job

On Monday, October 26, hundreds of Alberta healthcare workers walked off the job in a wildcat strike, protesting the provincial government’s decision to outsource 11,000 provincial general service staff jobs to private companies. By 9 p.m. that night the Alberta Labour Relations board issued a decision calling on those who were involved with the wildcat strike to cease and desist, calling the strike “illegal.” Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a statement saying that Alberta would “not tolerate illegal strike activity” and asked that, “all unions respect the bargaining process.” By Tuesday morning hospital and health-care staff were returning to work but Alberta Health Services (AHS) is considering disciplinary options for those that participated in the strike with the possibility of strikers being fined, suspended or fired for participating in the direct action.

Guy Smith, the President of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) spoke with the Carillon about the wildcat strikes that happened in Alberta. 

“Well, our health care members obviously are facing a lot of threats of job loss,” Smith explained. “This government is intent on privatizing a lot of the healthcare system, particularly in the general support services area. So we’re talking about the hospital, general maintenance staff, some clerical staff. And there’s been a lot of anger building, over the last year and just over two weeks ago, two and a half weeks ago, the health minister made an announcement right now smack dab in the middle of this pandemic that we’re all trying to deal with.

“He said that over the next couple of years in Alberta, thousands of health care jobs will be privatized and obviously gone. So that was, in our opinion, very provocative. And it started a lot of talk amongst our members about how they will respond. And to top that off, last Friday, at least, you know, the government actually put a request for proposals to private companies to do the laundry for hospitals. And so the wildcat strike, it’s really hard to know how all of this because it was so organic. We had about 35 communities striking across the province. So it spread very quickly. It was very fluid and we were blown away by the amount of public support, especially in small town Alberta, where there is the whole image of rural voters being so divided.”

While the strike was eventually labelled as criminal and called off under threat of criminal charges, Smith still remarked upon the success the strike had.

“I think it was successful on a number of fronts. Firstly, members felt that power to strengthen their collective power. The other thing was it showed the public the concerns health care staff are having. It shouldn’t be just about doctors and nurses, but also support staff that help keep the health care system running every single day, that they are just as important to the continuum of health care as our doctors, nurses. And the massive public awareness of the process of privatization, because we believe that if the government can get away with privatizing these services, then that starts the encroachment of privatization in other services which the public are traditionally not in favor of, like our nurses and doctors. I think it also shows the government that aid workers are willing to fight right now, we’re not going to be bullied around. And on top of the fact that we have cuts and threats of job loss and this showed that we also have very repressive labor legislation, which has shown that the power of the state to try and crush any sort of opposition [is strong]. So we’re ready and prepared to stand up to any kind of authoritarianism.”

In order to fully appreciate the importance of striking and unions in the employment sector we reached out to Charles Smith, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan. 

In terms of what characterizes a wildcat strike, Smith said, “Any strike that occurs outside of a breakdown of collective bargaining would be considered illegal or a wildcat. Unions can go through this really cumbersome process to be able to legally strike. They have to wait until the end of a collective agreement. They have to disagree. I have to declare an impasse. If they’re unable to reach an agreement in most jurisdictions, they have to then go through mandatory conciliation or sort of like a mediation process depending on the jurisdiction. And usually in most jurisdictions, they have to give a kind of a cooling off period, just to give you a sense of how much you have to go through before you can legally strike. A wildcat, by contrast, is essentially a group of workers, not always with the permission of union leadership, who, for reasons that vary from political reasons to their discontent with the employer or to the [unfair] discipline of a co-worker, simply put down their tools or whatever the metaphorical putting down of work and walk off the job. And that would be considered illegal under any labor law, but certainly it’s not illegitimate for many workers who feel that they are being attacked by governments, by employers, by managers or whatever.”

A lot of media began calling the strike “dangerous” due to the fact it was healthcare workers walking off in the middle of a pandemic, but Smith think it’s important to recognize the importance of the strike, particularly during the pandemic, 

“Staff certainly raised serious concerns I would suspect. They’re standing on the front lines of a global pandemic, I suspect that they would have had to have felt they had no other alternative. You don’t see this kind of mass wildcat very often in Canadian labor history. So to just dismiss it as an illegal option, I think doesn’t actually address the issues that we’re trying to raise. So I think it’s reflective on the government, on employers to recognize that there’s real problems here and to try and address them and to listen to working people.”

In particular Smith wasn’t surprised by the Alberta government’s attempts to villainize the strikers.

“It’s not surprising considering governments across the country, across North America, across the world, for the most part, have never been staunch allies of the organized labor movement. They will argue they are defenders of working people, but not organize working people. And, you know, there’s a clear distinction already that organized workers have a much stronger capacity to speak with a loud voice than when they’re not organized. They don’t have that same capacity unless they’re highly skilled,” Smith said.

And Smith said that this wasn’t the first time governments have refused to listen to workers and declared justified movements illegal:

“In 2018, forgive me if I got the date wrong, Justin Trudeau legislated a bunch of postal workers back to work after a rotating strike during Christmas time and basically ignored the reasons behind the strike and just got them back to work because they had to address the economic fallout from mail delivery around Christmas time. But what’s interesting is when you listen to the reason for that legal strike and the reason why they were doing it; the issues behind it have been simmering for years and the “back to work” legislation just never addressed that. There were all kinds of public safety issues, wage issues, and gender issues with the fact that women are being paid less, which took years to address and as far as I know, were never actually addressed.”

With all the bad press unions and strikes have been given, Smith gave some final information for students on understanding why unions have always been important, and why striking, particularly wildcat strikes, are an important tool for those in the workforce. 

“We live in a capitalist society, right now it is almost redundant to say that. But in capitalist societies, workers have no rights outside of whatever they’ve been able to push to stay safe.” He said that it has only been through labour unions that workers have been able to make the limited gains we see today, gains that many employers, with the help of governments, are trying to claw back. “Individually, employers try to ignore you, fire you or whatever. But collectively, it’s much harder to do so.”

Smith said that the importance of workers to the functioning of the economy has been made clear by the pandemic, not just in the healthcare sector, but across industries. “I think most dramatically we saw that when workers were forced out of labor in March, because of the shutdown, we saw how quickly the economy basically stopped working. Without the workers, the economy doesn’t work. So a collective strike is an important power for workers to have at their disposal.”

Smith said that when it comes to strikes, legal strikes are so restricted by law in terms of when and where and how they can happen that their effectiveness is often blunted. That’s where wildcar strikes become so important. “[Striking] illegally actually is much more of a disruption because the employers can’t plan for it. Often during these sorts of conflicts employers can plan, can stockpile product, they can hire replacement workers in the weeks to come in a way that they can’t do easily during a wildcat strike.

I think the fact that they put some boundaries around the strike weapon suggests how worried or even terrified the authorities and employers are of workers’ collective action. And in a free society, workers should have these rights, I think. Their contract shouldn’t be able to limit those collective actions.”

What’s happening in Albert is a slippery slope towards the privatization of the entire healthcare system, a system that has taken decades to put into place. And what’s happening there could just as easily happen in Saskatchewan, especially with the fresh Sask Party majority government. It’s important as students, and workers to remember that there is greater power united, and that unions and strikes are important and legitimate ways to ensure workers aren’t being taken advantage of by employers. And I think it’s important to highlight that strikes aren’t supposed to be convenient. They’re supposed to be an exercise by workers to use their collective power to get change. 

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