Health-care, public sector workers rally for better wages in downtown Fort McMurray

The workers say their wages have failed to keep up with inflation and their workplaces are understaffed.

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More than 20 people demanding better wages and improved workplace conditions protested on Monday outside the constituency offices of Energy Minister Brian Jean and UCP MLA Tany Yao, before moving across Franklin Avenue to the Provincial Building.

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Many of the protesters were health-care workers, whose unions are undergoing bargaining talks this summer. Other protesters represented other provincial workers. Across Alberta, nearly 248,000 employees are about to have their contracts expire this year.

“The membership is tired. They’re beat down and tired of a government and employer that bullies them,” said James Gault, vice president of the northeast region for the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE).

The Alberta government is offering 7.5 per cent raises during the next four years, which union leaders say is not enough to cover inflation and rising living costs. Different unions have asked for different amounts, but Gault says some requests still put workers behind in understaffed workplaces. AUPE has asked for 26 per cent during the next three years.

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Similar complaints about understaffing, stagnant wages and benefits, and problems keeping experienced workers have also been made, said Gault, by the unions representing workers in education, wildland firefighting and other government jobs.

“What we’re saying is we need better health care benefits, better mental health benefits, better pay, better wages and what’s been offered is just an insult to people they were calling heroes not long ago,” said Gault.

Jo-Ann Cluney, a registered nurse at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre’s emergency department and vice president of United Nurses of Alberta Local 96, said Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo is far off from becoming like Hinton. The mayor and council of that town recently declared a local health care crisis because of a shortage of health-care workers and local primary care services.

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But Cluney said health-care workers in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo are still frustrated about their staffing, scheduling and pay situations. Many workers with young families cannot switch to part-time positions, she said. Cluney also accused the Alberta government of relying too heavily on travel nurses.

“Alberta used to be the highest paid for health care workers and Fort McMurray has a northern living allowance on top of that,” said Cluney. “We need our health-care workers and housekeeping staff. We need to be able to recruit them to come here.”

Finance Minister Nate Horner said in an April statement that the Alberta government’s offer is generous compared to elsewhere in Canada, and called AUPE’s position extreme.

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“The Alberta government will not increase taxes or cut programs, services or workers to give unprecedented salary increases that will result in pay well above market rates,” Horner said in an April news release.

Jean and Yao were in Calgary at the time of the protest. Yao, who represents Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, said in a Monday interview that he had no issues with the protesters.

“I respect the right for negotiations to happen, and I hope both sides can come to a reasonable agreement that respects the workers but also respects the taxpayer,” said Yao in an interview. “Everyone has a right to protest peacefully and I appreciate them keeping it respectful.”

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Health care and public sector workers demand higher wages and improved workplace conditions during a protest outside the Provincial Building in downtown Fort McMurray on July 8, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Health care and public sector workers demand higher wages and improved workplace conditions during a protest outside the Provincial Building in downtown Fort McMurray on July 8, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Omer Hussein of the Wood Buffalo and District Labour Council speaks to health care and public sector workers demanding higher wages and improved workplace conditions during a protest outside the Provincial Building in downtown Fort McMurray on July 8, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Omer Hussein of the Wood Buffalo and District Labour Council speaks to health care and public sector workers demanding higher wages and improved workplace conditions during a protest outside the Provincial Building in downtown Fort McMurray on July 8, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
James Gault, AUPE’s northeast region’s vice president, and Jo-Ann Cluney, vice president of UNA Local 96, join health care and public sector workers demanding higher wages and improved workplace conditions during a protest outside the Provincial Building in downtown Fort McMurray on July 8, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
James Gault, AUPE’s northeast region’s vice president, and Jo-Ann Cluney, vice president of UNA Local 96, join health care and public sector workers demanding higher wages and improved workplace conditions during a protest outside the Provincial Building in downtown Fort McMurray on July 8, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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