Fort McMurray public sector unions hold bargaining talks amid inflation worries

The unions are demanding higher wages for workers, and are concerned about their employers’ abilities to keep and recruit workers.

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Fort McMurray’s public sector unions will be holding public rallies throughout the summer as they enter bargaining talks. The unions are demanding higher wages, which they say have failed to keep up with inflation. They are also concerned about workplace burnout, and their employers’ abilities to keep and recruit staff.

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“What we’re seeing is more determination from the workers to catch up,” said Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE), in a Thursday interview. “They fell behind inflation, there’s been lots of disruptions over the years, there’s short staffing in health care and government services. Workers have had enough.”

AUPE represents health care workers and general support staff, such as cleaners, food service workers, maintenance staff and administrative workers. AUPE also represents workers in social services, environmental protection, sheriffs and other government agencies.

Smith is travelling across Alberta meeting with members and was in Fort McMurray for a town hall meeting on Wednesday. He says AUPE is far from considering a strike and many members would need to continue offering essential services if one happened. However, AUPE workers are being told to prepare for that potential action.

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JoAnn Cluney of United Nurses of Alberta Local 96 says her union started talks last February. Cluney says major concerns include higher wages to match inflation, improved work-life balance and better patient ratios.

She also wants more part-time staff to supplement overworked full-time workers. A strike vote has not happened and Cluney is hopeful talks will go well this summer. However, she said members are prepared to strike.

“I’ve been a nurse though for 20 years with this local. For many of it we did not have the right to strike. But since we’ve had the right to strike, this would be the closest we’ve ever come to,” she said.

Unions representing school staff are also hopeful talks will be productive this summer. Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) said teachers are exhausted from large class sizes, particularly in Fort McMurray. Recruiting and keeping teachers is also difficult in the region, he said.

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Fort McMurray’s public and Catholic schools are at or near capacity. Both divisions say they each need a new school, expansions or portables to deal with surging enrolment. Schilling said concerns about mental health supports have also been raised.

“As we get into the process of seeing it unfold we will have a lot more clarity of where we are in the future,” said Schilling. “Teachers will be the ones who help determine that time frame.”

Lynn Fleet of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 2545 represents the public school’s educational assistants, custodians, maintenance and administrative staff, food services, librarian assistants and district office staff. Fleet said her staff are prepared to strike if talks don’t go well.

“We told them our mandate is our people want to see significant increases, and people don’t want to work two or three jobs to pay the bills,” said Fleet. “People are tired. People are getting hurt at work, mentally and physically. They are tired of not being valued.”

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