Health Care Reform
1993 will go down in UNA history as a year of critical change in the health care system. On June 15, 1993, the Progressive Conservative Party under the leadership of Premier Ralph Klein, was elected as the provincial government. Almost immediately, Mr. Klein and the new Minister of Health, Shirley McClellan, assisted by Diane Mirosh, announced a series of changes to the funding of health care in Alberta.
On July 14, Mr. Klein announced a $65 million dollar cut to be applied retroactively to April 1, 1993. This cut was applied more extensively to the urban hospitals and services than to the rural facilities.
In August, the government had a provincial Roundtable Meeting in Red Deer. When UNA President, Heather Smith, pointed out to the assembly that the government could find it’s $1 billion by simply cancelling it’s $911 million dollar health care construction plans, she was clearly told that the point of the exercise was not to save $1 billion dollars, but rather to reduce salaries and benefits.
In October, Klein announced that he was asking public sector employees to take a voluntary 5% rollback. An arbitrary deadline of November 23 was given for agreement on this voluntary rollback. What was unclear was the manner in which this was to be accomplished. In the face of signed Collective Agreements, the employers were uncomfortable with the government’s “voluntary” rollback. It was also unclear as to the makeup of the 5%. Was it 5% of wages or did it also include a 5% cut to benefits and premiums? The premier would not say. The Minister of Health would not say. And the Minister of Labour was busily trying to do damage control in a situation in which the government seemed to be blatantly urging employees and employers to violate the health care Collective Agreements. The only things that were clear were the fact that the Alberta government intended to cut $1 billion dollars out of the health care funding over a four year period, and that the government had no overall plan as to how they would do the cutting. When asked if acceptance of the 5% rollback would guarantee jobs over the four-year period, the government and the employers were crystal clear: acceptance of the rollback would not guarantee job security—in fact they were very sure that more layoffs would occur. November 23 came and went without agreements to voluntary cutbacks, and Klein then announced that on January 1, 1994, health care facilities would receive 5% less in government monies. Many health care employers declined applying a blanket 5% rollback and planned instead to let the current Collective Agreements expire and negotiate rollbacks into the new contracts.
It was at this point that UNA and other Alberta health care unions were successful in demanding that the government, the employers and the health care unions sit down at a tripartite table to discuss an agreement regarding compensation (wages, benefits, premiums, etc.) as well as the government’s request for a 5% rollback. Other items would be included in these “talks” as required. All parties were clear to say that these were not “negotiations”—rather, they were “talks” to see if some of the outstanding issues could be resolved prior to the different union contracts being negotiated. Simon Renouf acted as chief spokesperson for the health care unions and each union had 3 representatives on the union caucus team. In addition, each Union brought members of their own Negotiating Committees to meet with their representatives on the union caucus team. The first of these tripartite meetings was held in December and others were scheduled in 1994.
Effects of Health Care Reform
As part of the government’s reorganization of Alberta’s health care system, employers were given reduced funds to operate their facilities and services. All UNA worksites felt the effects of this financial cutback program. For many of our Locals, massive layoffs became the order of the day. Throughout 1993, our Local Executives were faced with the difficult and heart-breaking job of overseeing the layoff process and sharing the anguish of nurses with as much as five years’ seniority being ushered into the UI lines.
Some employers quickly applied the Total Quality Management technique of substituting lesser-skilled workers for highly-skilled personnel. An example of this occurred in one UNA worksite where RN’s were told not to have RN on their name tags because they were now to refer to themselves as Patient Hostesses. And in another UNA worksite, LPN’s were scheduled to do the work of laid off RN’s and the maintenance workers were trained to give the bed baths—work previously done by the LPN’s. The profession of nursing was undermined and compromised. Not only did UNA fight for improved wages and benefits in 1993—it also fought for the very profession itself.
In an attempt to respond to the government’s cutbacks, UNA put together a coalition called United for Health Care. Included in this coalition were representatives of other health care unions, consumer groups, women’s groups, anti-poverty groups and seniors’ groups.
UNA also developed and sent out thousands of copies of a health care pamphlet which outlined UNA’s alternate health care plan. UNA also distributed health care fact sheets and our on-going UNA Health Care Action Plan which encompasses work done within UNA, with other nursing bodies, with other health care unions and with the general public.
In late December, UNA charged Premier Klein, Labour Minister Stockwell Day, Health Minister Shirley McClellan and health care employers with threatening an illegal lockout as a result of the government’s insistence on implementing the 5% rollback. The Union filed the unfair labour practice charges against members of the government, the Alberta Healthcare Association, and the Health Unit Association of Alberta at the Labour Relations Board. According to Alberta’s labour laws, it is illegal to threaten to layoff or to layoff in an attempt to convince employees to accept rollbacks to the Collective Agreements when the parties are not in negotiations. Penalties for an illegal lockout are similar to the penalties UNA suffered for an illegal strike.
1993 was a bargaining year for many of UNA’s smaller Locals. Contracts were negotiated for Bethany Care-Cochrane, Extendicares, Chantelle, Central Park Lodges and the Victorian Order of Nurses.
Hospital and health unit bargaining committees were elected and attended negotiations orientation. Both the hospital and health unit bargaining committees reviewed membership demands; recommended changes to the contracts; and attended the demand-setting meetings held in preparation for bargaining in 1994.
While UNA was busy working on the lead-up to 1994 bargaining, a series of meetings was held with other health care unions to form a common front in the face of the government’s slash and burn activities. The tripartite talks were one of the major activities of this health care union caucus but other actions included a union advertising campaign, political action and media activities.
Grievances and Arbitrations
As usual, UNA Local Executives and Labour Relations Officers were hard at work in 1993 monitoring the application and interpretation of the Collective Agreements. UNA filed 740 grievances, scheduled 94 arbitration hearings and represented members in 33 arbitration hearings.
Mergers and Transfers
The ink was hardly dry on the 1992-1994 Royal Alexandra Hospital Collective Agreement when the Royal Alexandra Healthcare Corporation took over the ownership and administration of the Charles Camsell Hospital. This employer immediately began a series of transfers between the Royal Alexandra Hospital and the Charles Camsell Hospital. The Letter of Understanding on mergers and transfers which had been signed by the Union and the employer, was immediately the centre of controversy when the employer’s actions seemed to violate the conditions of the Letter of Understanding. A great amount of time, effort and finances was devoted to resolving the disputes. One of the results was that the Labour Relations Board granted a new certificate covering nurses at both sites and created UNA Local #200. For internal purposes UNA continued to treat the two sites as two distinct Locals, but for formal purposes, there was one Local.
1993 was also a year of negotiations with the Staff Nurses Association of Alberta in relationship to what happened when nurses were transferred with their services from a UNA worksite to an SNAA worksite, and vice versa. UNA and SNAA signed an agreement which allowed the portability of seniority, wage placement and other benefits.
1993 was a year of both provincial and federal elections. In preparation for each election, UNA sent questionnaires to the main political parties asking for their positions on matters relating to health care. Using the answers, UNA developed both a provincial and a federal election guide. These were sent to each UNA member, and included in the mailout were VOTE FOR HEALTH CARE buttons and federal postcards.
These federal postcards were to be sent to the Liberal and Conservative leaders during the federal election, urging both party leaders to protect and extend the principle’s of the Canada Health Act. About 100,000 postcards were distributed throughout Alberta.
Other forms of political action included UNA members attending the government’s series of roundtables on health care. Hundreds of UNA members passed out literature, participated in discussions and put forward UNA’s recommendations for health care reform at the 11 roundtable meetings held throughout the province.
In response to Local demands, UNA produced and distributed posters, buttons, t-shirts, pamphlets, pins and pens—all promoting UNA and/or the principles of the Canada Health Act.
UNA was very busy in 1993 forming and participating in coalitions. In United for Health Care, UNA worked with the Alberta Federation of Labour and the United for Social Justice groups to organize a very successful health care rally on October 23. UNA also worked with other health care unions to present a common front to the media.
UNA worked with the Alberta Association of Registered Nurses and the Staff Nurses Association of Alberta in calling a media conference to denounce the government’s cutbacks to health care. These three nursing organizations also funded and developed a successful newspaper advertising campaign.
UNA also attended a meeting in Montreal to which all the nurses’ unions in Canada and the National Federation of Nurses’ Unions sent their presidents and senior management. This historic meeting was held October 25 and 26 and provided all participants with an overview of what was happening to health care systems across Canada. It also provided time for joint planning and political action. More such meetings were planned for 1994.
1993 was a trial year for new and innovative education activities. All District meetings had an educational component attached to the meeting, as did UNA Executive Board meetings, the hospital Demand-Setting meeting and the UNA Annual General Meeting. This format of building educational components into every UNA meeting has been well received by the membership.
In total, UNA sponsored 120 different workshops at the Local, District, Executive Board, Provincial and Staff levels for a total of 2765 educational days. In addition, hundreds of hours of computer instruction were given to UNA members.
One of the major themes of the 1993 education program was Total Quality Management programs—their origin, their effects and UNA’s opposition. 1993 also say a very successful Labour School held June 16 and 17. There is no doubt that the highlight of the Labour School was Maude Barlow’s talk on the North American Free Trade Agreement. So successful was her talk that members requested that video copies of her speech be made available to the Locals which was done. And Maude was invited back to speak to the Annual General Meeting.
Local Presidents’ Meeting
In the face of government cutbacks, increasing numbers of layoffs and the need to pool information, UNA organized a meeting of Local Presidents for the day prior to the UNA Labour School. This meeting allowed Locals to provide current information about their worksites; allowed the UNA Executive Board members to hear firsthand the problems and concerns of the Locals; gave the UNA President an opportunity to present the provincial picture; and allowed both the Local Presidents and the Executive Board to outline plans and activities to respond to the problems facing the Union. Evaluations of this Presidents’ Meeting were enthusiastic and supportive of further such meetings.
The Publications and Communications department was extremely active in 1993. Not only did we change the format of the UNA Newsbulletin and move from 6 per year to 10 per year, we also organized health care coalition meetings; published pamphlets and posters; designed and distributed buttons, pins, pens and t-shirts; organized media releases and conferences; designed advertising campaigns; and organized rallies. In addition, both the Grievance Bulletin and the Occupational Health and Safety Bulletin were distributed as well as the Maude Barlow video and the Parliamentary Procedure video.
In February, UNA sent two Executive Board members to Mexico on a labour tour. The main focus of the tour was to meet Mexican trade unionists and learn from them the effects of the maquiladoras (free trade zone factories) on the health and lives of Mexican workers. When they returned, Sandie Rentz and Doris Amundson travelled the province sharing what they had learned and showing slides of what they had seen. This experience did much to convince UNA members that UNA’s opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement was soundly based.
In addition to the trade union tour of Mexico, UNA also agreed to sponsor one of our own members in a Canada-Mexico Labour Exchange program. Canadian trade unionists met and worked with Mexican trade unionists for three months in Canada and three months in Mexico.
Annual General Meeting
The 1993 Annual General Meeting was held in Calgary on November 2, 3 and 4. Some major decisions taken by the delegates were to reduce the Annual General Meeting to two days; to hold all provincial meetings in Edmonton; to change the delegate entitlement from 1 delegate per 50 members, to 1 delegate per 75 members; and to investigate the possibilities of merger with the Staff Nurses Association of Alberta. Sandie Rentz was re-elected UNA Vice-President. And Maude Barlow addressed the delegates on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Emilie Aeyelts, the President of UNA Local #113 in Elnora gave our computer network a name. Many suggestions were submitted following the 1992 AGM, and UNA-NET was chosen.
The network expanded to include 25 additional Locals—High Level in the North, Pincher Creek in the South, Provost and Cold Lake to the East, just to name a few. At the end of 1993, 45 Locals had access to UNA-NET. As said at the AGM “The network is the great equalizer”.
UNA-NET also provided access to DOS users in November of 1993, an important step in making the network more versatile.