Frontline fury

Health care workers repel efforts to turn them from heroes to zeroes


GOODWILL GESTURES WON’T CUT IT for health care workers in Alberta, says Bonnie Gostola. Particularly when you plan to take jobs away from 11,000 of them in the middle of a pandemic.

Gostola is a health care aide and an Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) vice president. She says healthcare workers need and deserve something a lot better than the threat of massive lay offs and the temporary pay boost some got earlier this year.

Not “donation boxes”

“The thing about goodwill is it’s always welcome, but it’s unreliable. And employees aren’t donation drop boxes. They’re employees. Working Albertans shouldn’t have to wait for a global crisis, and the consequent grace of their employers, to make ends meet,” she wrote.

One of the few things that is reliable in Alberta now is that nothing—not even a worldwide pandemic—can get premier Jason Kenney to change his plans to turn providing public services over to private business. His move to lay-off up to 11,000 health workers, for example, involves the outsourcing of cleaners, catering workers, lab workers, and housekeeping staff to private firms.

Outrage over the decision triggered early November rallies in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and other smaller locations.

Deciding who’s frontline?

Health Minister Tyler Shandro tried to head off criticism of the lay offs by saying that no “frontline workers” would lose their jobs. The catch was, he narrowly defined frontline workers as nurses and other healthcare professionals—support staff like porters and cleaners got no guaranties.

“Make no mistake, they’re all frontline workers,” stated AUPE vice president Bobby-Joe Borodey, at a rally outside the Foothills hospital in Calgary.

“When this pandemic started, they were the heroes that were on the frontline — the first line of defence at keeping Albertans safe at hospitals and health centres across the province. And then, when we’re in month eight, all of a sudden, they’re zeroes. And they’re overpaid and replaceable. So, they’re feeling pretty deflated and frustrated.”

Shandro was ultimately forced to admit that jobs will actually be lost even among his narrow definition of “frontline workers.” The number of nurses employed in the public sector will be reduced through natural attrition.

Workers already struggling to get by

Many of the workers whose jobs have been targeted for privatization are already struggling to make ends meet. Hospital porters, caterers, and cleaners face gruelling shifts and low pay thanks to decades of underfunding and spending cuts for public health care.

“We’re exhausted. We’re really exhausted. We’re working short every day,” said Dina Moreira, a porter at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra hospital, while at an October wildcat strike.

“The majority of us are already living paycheck to paycheck, barely making ends meet. And I don’t think that’s fair of Kenney trying to do that to us. Not at all. So that’s why we are out here fighting for our rights. We deserve to have a little bit extra savings and we don’t have nothing, nothing. We’re barely making it.”

Gostola says: “Four dollars and 50 cents, or two dollars, or a 20 per cent wage bump: these mean the world to a healthcare employee who’s earning minimum, and may have even lost a second, crucial job to the provincial government’s single-site order or another pandemic-related shutdown.”

Bogus reasoning

The UCP sweeping privatization plans call for the government to sell off public assets, contract out services, and outsource jobs.

The health care cuts are based on the premise that health care professionals in Alberta are overpaid compared to their counterparts in other provinces. This couldn’t be more devious and false, says Heather Smith of the United Nurses of Alberta.

Smith points out such a premise deliberately ignores the reality that wages in all sectors of the Alberta economy are higher than the rest of Canada, due to the overall higher cost of living in the province.

“Cherry-picking health care pay, and trying to use that as a club in bargaining to make nurses and other frontline healthcare providers alone pay for big cuts the government hopes to make, is unjust and certainly won’t impress our members, the majority of whom are women,” said Smith.

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