Albertans have seen this movie before – a battle between public workers and the Alberta government. Cuts to education and health care, the potential rollback of public sector wages and the looming possibility of more layoffs all hang over our public institutions like a dark cloud.
Nurses are understandably up in arms. On Thursday, United Nurses of Alberta and the Alberta Union of Public Employees rallied the troops province-wide, including at the Sturgeon Community Hospital, for "information walks" to protest potential job cuts and the impact that could have on patient care.
Union members told the Gazette they worry about what these cuts could mean. Morale is dropping and sometimes nurses feel they have to choose between taking their mandated breaks and taking care of their patients.
It's not an easy position to be in, but neither is the one the province is in. Our economy continues to spurt away, now in its fifth year of what has become a deep recession. There's less money to go around across the board, and many people in Alberta have lost their jobs. Our main industry was devastated by global market changes and federal resistance to approving necessary infrastructure such as pipelines. The days of oil prices sitting well north of $100 per barrel are gone, and with it went a significant chunk of the provincial government's revenue.
We need to keep in mind that about 43 per cent ($20.6 billion) of the provincial government’s operating costs are spent on health care. That’s more than double what is spent on education. While the last collective agreement saw public employees' wages frozen for two years, up until this point they've escaped having their numbers pared down or having their wages cut. If the province is going to save material dollars, it has to look at its largest expense.
That said, our government has not exactly shown good judgment when prioritizing its spending. There's no denying the fact Alberta's most vulnerable people have had their lives made more difficult under the UCP, which cancelled an NDP decision to tie disability payments to inflation. Recently, chronic patients went public with allegations the province was no longer providing them a medical transportation subsidy (which the UCP denies).
At the same time, the province's $30-million "war room" has bounced from one scandal to another, which calls into question – and rightly so – whether this advocacy centre is a colossal waste of taxpayer money.
We would all love a return to days of plenty, but in the meantime the Canadian Energy Centre is not a prudent place to park taxpayer dollars. Public sector wages are also not the place to spend money given the dire economy we (public and private sectors) face. We must take care of our most vulnerable people first.