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Hospital workers wildcat in Edmonton

Paul Kellogg

March 1, 2012

An old tradition in the workers’ movement came back to life in February in Edmonton: the wildcat strike.

February 16 at 7 a.m., hundreds of angry service workers walked off the job at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. They were soon joined by workers at the University of Alberta Hospital and the Northeast Community Health Centre.

These general support service employees, 22,000 strong, form the indispensable framework for hospital activities in the province—managing health records, preparing meals, sterilizing surgical tools and assisting in therapy, in the pharmacy and elsewhere.

But they are being treated as disposal workers by management.

Members of the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE), they have been without a contract since last spring. The results of mediation have been no better. Their bargaining unit was given a mediator’s contract recommendations, and rejected it overwhelmingly.

In response, the employer, Alberta Health Services (AHS), came back with a new offer that offered a two percent lump sum payment for 2011 (i.e., no increase in base pay), a two per cent increase for 2012, and a cost of living increase for 2013. This offer “was even less than what was recommended in the rejected mediator’s report” said AUPE President Guy Smith. “What we got was nothing short of insulting,” he said in a press conference.

The response to this insulting offer was to have been a series of information pickets on the afternoon of February 16.

While better than nothing, information pickets are usually ignored by the mass media, and so rarely bring very much attention to the issues workers face in struggles with management.

But the wildcats, which pre-empted those information pickets, certainly did the trick. The morning news, on radio and television, was full of sounds and images of angry workers, telling their story, and letting the public know about their concerns.

Wildcat strikes are technically “illegal”—but in the face of determined solidarity, and real sympathy from the Edmonton public, AUPE won a back-to-work protocol, with a guarantee that “there will be no legal action or workplace discipline.”

With employers across the country increasingly playing hardball, and with Conservative governments in office federally and in many provinces (including, of course, Alberta), Edmonton hospital workers are doing all of us a service by rehearsing this powerful, rarely used tactic—the rank-and-file led wildcat.

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