Alberta introduces essential services legislation

Bill complies with Supreme Court, Court of Queen's Bench rulings

Some public sector workers in Alberta will be given the right to strike during a labour dispute, should a proposed labour law pass.

Introduced by labour minister Christina Gray in March, Bill 4 would amend the province’s Public Service Employee Relations Act and the Labour Relations Code to allow public sector strikes.

The bill was drafted following a directive from the Supreme Court of Canada and Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, which determined that Alberta’s public sector strike ban interfered with the collective bargaining process and diminished employees’ rights.

“This marks a fundamental change in Alberta’s public sector labour relations,” Gray said. “Alberta’s public sector labour legislation is almost three decades old, and now needs to be updated. This bill is a big step forward in that process and balancing the right to strike with the need to maintain essential services are continued during any labour dispute.”

Gray added that employers and unions will have to determine which services should be considered essential during a labour dispute and any disagreement would be determined by a third-party “umpire.”

Firefighters, police officers and some emergency workers will not have the right to strike, and Bill 4 does not include teachers or workers in education, who already have the right to strike in Alberta.

Overall, about 150,000 workers will be affected, including Alberta Health Services workers, all government employees and non-academic staff at post-secondary education institutions.

Andy Sims, the labour lawyer who ran the government-led consultations last fall, said Bill 4 was designed to balance the right to free collective bargaining with the need to protect the public at large by maintaining some services during a dispute.

“It is a levelling position for both sides. This is not new — it’s new to us in Alberta, but it’s been effective in other provinces and at the federal government, so I don’t think you should discount the fact that both sides at the eleventh hour of a strike or lockout will really have to think of the reality of it,” Sims said.

He explained that though this provides unions with more leverage at the bargaining table, it also boosts the employer or government’s position, as they will not be bound by third-party arbitration. For instance, the government can, in good faith, relate its economic realities to the union when it comes to contentious issues such as wages.

Unions approved the bill’s introduction, including the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), which represents almost 90,000 public sector workers in the province, including health care, government services and education.

“We’re pleased that the right to strike for front-line workers was secured by the courts,” said Guy Smith, president of AUPE. “There has been a blanket prohibition on the right to strike so having this legislation that recognizes that right to strike is something we’ve been pushing for years.”

Smith called the legislation a fundamental shift that will level the playing field between employer and employee — especially at the bargaining table, where a strike or similar job action can make for powerful leverage.

“It’s a historical day in terms of recognizing those rights,” he said. “Then, obviously, the challenge moving forward — because this is brand new territory for unions and employer — is developing essential services agreements, and moving forward on how we utilize that right to strike legally. We’ve used the right illegally before, which is fun, but it’s now much more of an established process that has to be followed.”

Breezy bargaining?

Gray said the legislation will also ease negotiations, as a strike is often applied as a last resort, both parties will be eager to get a contract signed.

“The legislation places greater responsibility for reaching settlements into the hands of employers and unions. In most cases, they won’t have compulsory arbitration to fall back on to settle disputes. So they will need to focus their efforts on achieving agreements together,” Gray said. “In other words, collective bargaining will take on an even bigger role than it does now.”

Smith agreed.

“Negotiations are always tough, especially in the public service,” he said. “The history has been quite tumultuous and I would presume that, moving forward, now everyone is very aware of what their rights are, we will be very responsible with those rights.”

Alberta’s own
While other provinces such as Saskatchewan and even the federal government have implemented essential services programs in recent years, the system in Alberta is tailored to fit that specific labour force.

Smith said it was important for the legislation to reflect labour relations in the province.

“It kind of puts a good focus on the bargaining table to get a deal in place, but we also recognize that the economic environment that we find ourselves in here in Alberta is very challenging at the bargaining table as well,” he said.

Bill 4 will be put to the test next year when contracts with a major chunk of the province’s public sector workers expire, including government and health services.

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