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On March 11 the Government of Alberta introduced Bill 27, the Labour Relations (Regional Health Authorities Restructuring) Amendment Act, 2003. All of the unions, all of the media and all of the CEOs of the nine Regional Health Authorities (RHAs) were invited to the Legislature, to be “briefed” on changes to the Alberta Labour Code in this Act. But, the title of Bill 27 should really be “An Act to Enact Regulations”. In other words, this legislation really contained no legislation.

The real meaning of the changes to the Labour Code will be found in the Regulations, which according to the Minister of Human Resources and Employment are not yet written. So for all the media build up and all the pomp and ceremony over Bill 27’s announcement the Minister could not answer any questions regarding how, when and what changes will take place affecting the bargaining rights of thousands of employees in the Alberta health care system. To his credit, the Minister could answer the question why. Why are these changes being imposed? The answer is very simple, the Regional Health Authorities asked for them.

We do know the Regulations will include streamlining labour representation establishing a process for turning 400 bargaining certificates into 36. And in each RHA dozens of collective agreements will have to be turned into one. That means for many employees, rates of pay, benefits, seniority rights and job security will change.

A key regulation is the one that will give the Chair of the Alberta Labour Relations Board new powers to determine the terms and conditions of collective agreements. Compare this with the fact that the government advertisements appearing in daily newspapers across the province on March 12, says the RHAs asked for the Labour Code changes in order to implement the reforms to health care delivery recommended by the Mazankowski Report. We have to ask which reforms are these? Privatization and commercialization? De-listing services? Healthy Living? The government has not made any announcements about the Mazankowski reform beyond raising premiums last year. But we do know that Mazankowski recommended the appointment of someone with the power to remove barriers to reform. Barriers such as the terms and conditions of labour agreements. Now here we are one year later. Could it be this someone is the Chair of the Alberta Labour Relations Board?

The real issue underneath all of this fanfare about streamlining bargaining and cutting administrative time and money are the rights of health care workers. Severance, successor rights, job security rights, benefits and pensions. Rights that ensure these jobs are family supporting jobs, good for the economy of Alberta. These same rights stand in the way of health care privatization.

Amid all of the coming chaos over which union and which collective agreement, it is the future of our public health care system that is at stake. Because when you put it all together it sure looks like more health care privatization is on the way. For that, every Albertan will pay a high price. But, the first people to pay the price will be the people working in RHAs today delivering high quality, accessible public health care.

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Yvonne Fast is the President of CUPE Alberta. CUPE is Canada’s largest union with over half a million women and men who provide public services. In Alberta, CUPE’s 31,000 members work in health care, municipalities, schools, colleges, universities, libraries, emergency medical services, social services and casinos. Visit our CUPE websites for more information www.cupe.ca and cupealberta.ab.ca.