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Political drama is wreaking havoc in health care

A crushing pandemic and a malevolent government have defined the latest episode for AHS General Support Services workers

Nov 09, 2021

By Alexander Delorme, Communications Staff

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General support services (GSS) are not what most people think of when they imagine a hospital. Doctors and nurses rushing from patient to patient usually come to mind, and occasionally, a lab-coat-wearing scientist-type hovering over a microscope.

Most of these images are inspired by television dramas and movies. But the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that GSS is integral to quality health care. Remove these services from the picture, and you’re left with a horror story full of gaps: unanswered phone calls, missing supplies, horrible food, soiled linens, rooms in disarray, and worse. Support staff and the work they do can literally mean life or death for patients. Their experiences alone could fill a few seasons of ER, House, or Grey’s Anatomy.

“They’re the unsung heroes of health care, and they go above and beyond for Albertans,” says AUPE Vice-President Karen Weiers, a front-line clerical worker who has been with Alberta Health Services (AHS) for over 40 years. “People may think of them as supporting characters, but our entire health-care system would stop rolling if you cut them out of the picture.”

Cuts are the story Jason Kenney’s government is spinning though, even with COVID-19’s fourth wave raging across the province. In October 2020, former Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the UCP government was going to fire 11,000 front-line health-care workers, about 9,000 of whom are AUPE members.

AUPE members at AHS sites across the province drew national attention to this privatization ploy with their Oct. 26 wildcats. The reaction from Albertans to the protest was overwhelmingly positive.

“People are beginning to understand just how important support staff are,” says Weiers. “AUPE members took matters into their own hands by staging that wildcat strike, and Albertans joined them in defiance of Kenney’s cruel cuts.”

While Kenney and Shandro incited strife in the streets, AHS did their bidding at the bargaining table with a string of insulting proposals. Huge cuts to weekend and evening pay, as well as the times of day staff actually receive that pay, are just the start. AHS’s laughable job security proposal is meaningless, as they could just contract out anyone they want, like the 11,000 Shandro announced. And then there’s the main event: a proposed minus 4% wage cut for all staff.

“They’re the unsung heroes of health care, and they go above and beyond for Albertans. People may think of them as supporting characters, but our entire health-care system would stop rolling if you cut them out of the picture.”
Karen Weiers

Karen Weiers, AUPE Vice-President

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AUPE members once again responded in kind. Through petitions, persistence, and public advocacy, health-care workers pressured the government and AHS to back down, reconsider, and recast the minus 4% wage cut with a five-year contract, including three years of zeroes and two years of 1% wage increases.

Some might consider that a victory, but there is no happy ending in sight. AHS is moving forward with huge cuts to jobs, starting with contracting out all in-house laundry services to the private company K-Bro. Other jobs are at stake too. AHS is currently in the process of trying to contract out hospital retail food services.

“We are essential to Albertans’ entire health-care experience,” says Vevangapi Katjamana, who works in retail food services at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. “Creating poverty positions under a privatization strategy will hurt our health-care system, including patient food services.”
Katjamana and his colleagues have gathered thousands of petition signatures in support of keeping retail food services in-house, and even held a town hall to get the word out about what privatization would mean for patients and staff. Their struggle continues, as does the work of the Article 40 committee, of which Katjamana is a member, to show AHS the alternatives to privatization.

“Many of us live in low-income families, are single parents and immigrants, and we cannot afford to lose our jobs while Alberta’s economy is still hamstrung by COVID’s fourth wave,” he says.

GSS members may feel like they’re in the final act, but Kenney recently introduced a plot twist by shuffling out Shandro to make way for a new Health Minister, the more approachable Jason Copping. Combine that move with the crushing weight of a catastrophic fourth wave, and it’s anybody’s guess how this chapter will end.

But Weiers reminds members that “we have the power to plot our own destiny. Despite the pain, despite the hardship, despite the disrespect and the divisiveness, I promise you: Albertans know health-care workers matter, and if we stand together—in solidarity—we can bring about the finale we deserve.”

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