By SUSAN ZIELINSKI
and JESSICA JONES
A one-day illegal wildcat strike across Alberta on Thursday by hospital workers included staff at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.
Chris Mazurkewich of Alberta Health Services said they agreed late Thursday afternoon to binding arbitration with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the 22,000 staffers who perform the non-medical jobs at hospitals and health centres.
“AUPE has agreed to cease all wildcat strike activities at hospitals and other care sites,” Mazurkewich, the chief operating officer of Alberta Health Services, told reporters.
“We will immediately begin rescheduling surgeries and diagnostic tests, and patients will be contacted personally as soon as possible.”
He said General Support Services workers were to be back on the job Thursday night, that bargaining would begin next week and that no one who walked the line will be reprimanded or punished.
All staff were back to work around 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Between 600 and 800 workers took part in the job action at about 20 health facilities.
The walkout began early Thursday, when staff at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital hit the picket line.
Union spokesman Mark Wells said word spread quickly on the Internet and Twitter, leading to similar walkouts that continued through the morning and into the early afternoon.
At Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, surgeries were postponed until further notice.
“We will immediately begin rescheduling surgeries and diagnostic tests, and patients will be contacted personally as soon as possible,” Mazurkewich said.
An information picket outside Red Deer Regional Hospital at 12:30 p.m. was initially only supposed to last for the afternoon but matters escalated to the strike, said 45-year-old Bill Marshall, of Red Deer.
“I was there today talking to the support staff because I was in the hospital getting my prep stuff done and they told me it was not a strike, it was just to make people know what has been going on,” he said Thursday afternoon.
Marshall, who is unable to walk or work, needs surgery on his leg and was told by a doctor on Thursday that his surgery date was cancelled. He received no other information, just that someone would be getting back to him for when the surgery can be rescheduled.
“The hold back of the surgeries is horrific,” Marshall said. “My whole life is put on hold because of this.”
“The wildcat just took us by storm this morning. The General Support workers are just fed up with the offers that are being placed before them and the lack of respect,” said Jason Heistad, AUPE vice-president as union members chanted outside the Red Deer hospital, wearing placards and waving flags.
“They have been pushed into a corner. That’s how they feel.”
Members yelled out support when asked if they wanted a wildcat in Red Deer.
“The membership has spoken. That was their decision, and (the union) supports them,” Heistad said as the strike began.
Soon after, Alberta Health Services put contingency plans in place at all sites affected, with management staff providing services such as meal delivery, portering, and room cleaning.
About 200 people, including workers belonging to other health-care unions, came out to the Red Deer picket that started at 11:30 a.m. at the south main entrance of the hospital.
General Support Services include staff who manage health records, prepare meals, maintain and clean facilities, assist in therapy, sterilize surgical tools, assist pharmacists and provide security.
Red Deer hospital has about 800 General Support Services members, with about 400 members working at one time.
Heistad said they are the lowest paid workers in the health care system, predominately female. Some work other part-time jobs just to get by.
“I’ve been there for 40 years and I still make under $20 an hour,” said Al Pelletier, a custodian at the Royal Alexandra.
“We’re not getting anywhere with Alberta Health Services. They don’t respect us. They tell us we’re an important part of health care, but yet they treat us like slaves.”
In January, the workers’ bargaining unit rejected a mediator’s contract recommendations by 95 per cent. AUPE walked away from mediated negotiations last week after AHS tabled an offer of a two per cent lump sum payment for 2011, a two per cent increase for 2012 and a cost of living increase for 2013.
Wells said that was “the spark in the tinder box” because the offer was worse than the one the workers had already rejected.
Alberta Health Services says the deal was different but not inferior.
Opposition Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, who is also an emergency room doctor at the Royal Alexandra, met with workers on the lines to show support.
“Literally they clean blood, vomit and excrement off the floors,” Sherman later told reporters.
“They feed the people in the hospitals, they do all the paperwork. They’re the unit clerks, the cleaning staff.
“They’re the lowest paid staff, and I can’t believe the government won’t give them a measly three per cent.”
NDP Leader Brian Mason said when hourly wages are taken into account, the new offer amounts to a boost of 32 cents an hour.
“They do the hardest work in our hospitals. They do the heavy lifting, the menial jobs, the jobs nobody else wants to do,” said Mason.