EDMONTON -- Hundreds of Alberta hospital staff may have been back at work Tuesday by order, but their union says their message still stands: between the pressures of the pandemic and impending government layoffs, workers are frustrated.

“Our members have been upset and angry and frustrated for months and months and months,” Susan Slade, vice president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, told CTV News Edmonton on Tuesday.

“They took a stand against the privatization that’s potentially going to happen, they took a stand against having their jobs abolished, as well as the various levels of short staffing that’s happening.”

Workers, including aides and support staff, walked off the job at about 30 sites throughout the province, including hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary.

Alberta Health Services estimated 157 non-emergency surgeries, mostly in the capital city, had to be postponed.

AHS said service disruptions ended Tuesday morning, hours after the Labour Relations Board ruled the job action was illegal and AUPE members were told to return to work. 

In the legislature, Opposition NDP Critic Janis Irwin accused Health Minister Shandro of shabbily treating critical front-line workers.

"These folks put their lives on the line to serve Albertans, and they deserve our respect and dignity, not your government's constant attacks," Irwin told the house during question period.

"What message do you have for these dedicated workers?"

Shandro replied, "This is pure hypocrisy from the NDP. We are doing what exactly the NDP did. They had 68 per cent of laundry jobs throughout the province contracted out in Calgary and Edmonton.

"The NDP are not fighting for patients. They're not fighting for the workers either. They're fighting for the six-figure salaries of their union bosses."

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said her party did not initiate any privatization of those health services during its previous four years in government.


Wildcat strikes, as the type of job action is commonly called, are organized by members rather than the union.

Slade said the union anticipated having to tell workers to go back to work on Tuesday, but did not commit there wouldn’t be more job action in the future.

“We are still going to continue to mobilize and have conversations with members.”

But a law professor at the University of Alberta is more certain.

“I’d be surprised actually if this is the last job unrest we see in this province,” Eric Adams told CTV News Edmonton.

He called Monday’s wildcat strike a “dramatic moment” that has likely been “simmering under the surface for some time,” but wouldn’t characterize it as unprecedented, recalling strikes by health workers in the 1990s and 2000s.

AHS and AUPE do not currently have an essential services agreement in place, which would be a requirement of a lawful strike. According to the labour board’s ruling, once its return-to-work orders are filed in court, any violations could be followed by civil or criminal penalties.

Adams said Albertans could also see AHS stop collecting union dues, or fine AUPE – actions more likely to happen before charges.

“That is atypical, but I suppose in extreme circumstances where there simply is a refusal to return to work and where labour unrest continues on and on, then the nature of the penalties can escalate up to that point.”

As for the workers, Adams said they likely want to continue forcing debate and discussion to happen in the public sphere, and humanize the anticipated 11,000 layoffs of laundry, lab and food services staff.

“I think it’s going to be a larger part of labour politics in Alberta,” Adams speculated.

“We have delayed some of this reckoning because of the pandemic, but now that we are going to enter into a number of contracts that are going to enter into the negotiation and bargaining phase, to the extent that the government is going to be calling for reductions in salaries, that tends to encourage strike activity.”

Alberta’s finance minister told CTV News Edmonton the government would continue to bargain in good faith, and expected unions to respect that process and the law.

“While we respect the right of union members to express their opinions, the Alberta Labour Relations Board was clear that yesterday’s job action was illegal,” Travis Toews said in a statement.

“The Government cannot tolerate illegal strikes - especially in essential services such as healthcare - and will use all available legal mechanisms to respond as needed.”

On Wednesday, five of the province’s largest unions will together hold a press conference responding to the government’s cuts and launch a “Stand up to Kenney” campaign.

The Alberta Federation of Labour, United Nurses of Alberta, Health Sciences Association of Alberta, Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta, and U of A Non-Academic Staff Association will all participate.

On Monday, strikers also saw statements of support published by Unifor and the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Dan Grummet and The Canadian Press