Labour board calls Alberta hospital staff walkout illegal, orders picketers back to work

General support services workers in Alberta’s health-care sector and auxiliary nursing care staff who walked off the job or didn’t show up for shifts as part of wildcat strikes across parts of the province were ordered back to work on Monday night.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board said it found the job action to be illegal under s.71 of the Labour Relations Code.

“All employees engaged in an illegal strike are ordered to cease and desist from engaging in any further strike activity,” Nancy Schlesinger, vice-chair of the board, wrote in her ruling. “All employees engaged in illegal strike activity are directed to return to work according to their scheduled shifts.”

She said the directives take effect immediately and also noted that an order has been filed in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench which is “now enforceable as an order of the court.”

The board also directed the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees to “take immediate steps to notify all employees” of its findings and said the workers’ employer can also serve the board’s directives “by personal service” or by posting the directives where employees are picketing. It said the employer could also inform workers of the ruling by email or bulletins.

The ruling came after an emergency hearing was called after Alberta Health Services sought an urgent cease and desist order calling for anyone who walked off the job to return to work.

On Monday morning, hospital support workers and some front-line health-care workers took part in wildcat strikes outside various health facilities in the province.

While the AUPE said it did not authorize the action, it explained in a news release that workers are angry over how they’ve been treated by the provincial government, particularly the province’s plans to lay off thousands of support workers in the health-care sector and to privatize services like laundry and food preparation and increase the privatization of lab services.

In response to the strikes, AHS said it was implementing contingency plans that involve non-union staff, including managers, to cover for missing staff.

Late Monday night, both AHS and Finance Minister Travis Toews issued statements on the labour board’s ruling.

“We expect staff members to return to work as scheduled,” AHS’ statement read in part.

Toews said he was pleased with the ruling and expects “the leadership of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees to ensure that all employees return to work immediately.”

“Albertans should be able to rely on their health-care system with services delivered uninterrupted — no matter the circumstance,” he said. “We fully expect all employees to respect the board’s ruling and return to work.

“Going forward we expect that all unions respect the bargaining process and stop putting Albertans’ safety at risk. We will not tolerate illegal strike activity.”

When reached for comment, the AUPE told Global News it was working on a statement.

The labour board ruling emerged after a more than two-hour long hearing was held Monday afternoon. AHS’ legal counsel explained the health authority had pre-emptively filed for a cease and desist order earlier in the month in anticipation of possible strike action and that it heard more rumours about that possibility on Sunday.

They argued the job action is illegal and sought an immediate injunction that would declare the strikes as such, call for any employees engaging in such action to cease and desist, order the AUPE to make every effort to bring an end to the strike and to have those directives filed in court immediately.

AHS’ counsel said the matter was urgent as the provision of health care was being disrupted in the middle of a pandemic, and at a time when the province is dealing with record daily increases of COVID-19 cases.

The AUPE’s counsel reiterated that the union had not authorized the strike and so was not in a position to dispute whether workers who took job action are in a legal strike position.

However, the union’s counsel said it could not dispute that some of its members who were scheduled to work on Monday did not go to work and were picketing in front of at least two facilities. The union and AHS’ counsel both agreed that someone walking off the job in St. Paul had an impact on the ability to provide dialysis services there.

Watch below: Some videos from Global News’ coverage of Monday’s wildcat strikes.

The union’s counsel also argued that there was limited evidence of how many workers actually engaged in a work stoppage when they were not entitled to.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s office declined to comment on the job action but in a statement, Toews said he’s aware of “a number of illegal strikes taking place in hospitals and health-care settings across the province.”

He added that his government’s primary concern is making sure the health and well-being of patients is being tended to.

“Those involved in this illegal action will be held accountable,” Toews said.

“My expectation is that all unions respect the bargaining process, stop putting Albertans’ safety at risk and abide by the law.”

In a news release, AUPE president Guy Smith said members are trying to defend jobs and protect Alberta’s public health-care system.

“Anger has been building among members for months,” he said. “The recent announcement by Health Minister Tyler Shandro of 11,000 jobs being cut in the middle of a global deadly pandemic was the last straw for them.

“This government is pushing our members to the breaking point exactly when Albertans need them most.”

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said she was troubled by the job action but added that the government must back down on its plans to lay off thousands of workers, a move she believes will negatively impact patient care during the pandemic.

The Alberta Federation of Labour, the Alberta Teachers Association and Friends of Medicare also voiced support for the striking workers.

Earlier in the day, AHS said the strikes had prompted the postponement of 157 non-emergency surgeries in addition to elective surgeries postponed in Edmonton late last week due to the COVID-19 situation.

–With files from The Canadian Press’ Colette Derworiz and Lauren Krugel

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