Alberta’s labour relations landscape is changing. The Alberta government passed a new labour relations law this spring that could impact your collective bargaining rights. Until now in Alberta, most public sector workers have been under a blanket ban preventing them from exercising their fundamental right to strike in the case of a bargaining dispute. Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services, reverses that ban for most public sector workers. It also ensures that the most essential services in Alberta aren’t interrupted in the case of a strike. So what does this mean and how will it affect you?
We’ve compiled some common questions posed by members during the town hall meetings in an effort to keep you up to date with the latest information.
Why is the law changing?
Alberta’s labour laws have not been updated in decades before this, and it was time to bring the law into the 21st Century. AUPE has long lobbied for the right to strike for its members. This law is finally changing because of court judgments that said the government’s blanket ban on strikes for public sector workers was unconstitutional. That’s why we are seeing the Alberta government bring in these changes now – it had to give us the right to strike, but the court also said that right has to be balanced with public safety.
What is an essential service?
Let’s make it clear that the term “essential” as used in Bill 4 is a legal term connected to the service and not the individual providing that service. It does not hold the same meaning as it does in every day English. Those services deemed essential will be determined by the bargaining unit’s ESA negotiated by both the union and employer. If the service you provide is deemed essential, it may affect your bargaining rights and your ability to exercise your right to strike. The fact is the more services determined non-essential the more effective a potential strike would be. That means the more pressure the employer would feel at the bargaining table to agree to a fair deal.
Who decides if my position is essential?
The essential services agreement determines which positions within the bargaining unit are considered essential, using the definition in the legislation.
What is the difference between the Umpire and the Essential Services Commissioner?
The essential services commissioner is appointed to the Labour Relations Board, and oversees all essential services agreements. The umpire is someone with specialized knowledge who helps to mediate disagreements over essential service agreements. If you’re familiar with baseball, the analogy holds pretty well.
Does this mean I’ll be going on strike?
This doesn’t mean you’re going on strike, but it does mean you now have that right to strike – a right most other public sector workers in Canada already had.
What is a lockout?
A lockout happens when the employer prohibits employees from entering a worksite in an effort to negotiate their terms.
What if I already had the right to strike?
This law will not apply to you and nothing about your collective bargaining process is changing.
How do other provinces where public sector workers have had the right to strike determine how to address essential services?
AUPE is in contact with other unions that have experience with essential services laws in their own provinces. However, there is a limit to how much we can learn from these jurisdictions because the Supreme Court decision that restores the right to strike as constitutionally-protected fundamentally changes the legal landscape across Canada.
Could bargaining now take longer than it did before?
There is a potential for that, especially in the first round of negotiations under this new framework, as unions, employers and government all come to grips with the implications of the new law. The impact on the length of time collective bargaining could take will depend on several factors, including the employers’ motivation to reach a collective agreement.
It sounds like the Essential Services Commissioner will end up with a heavy workload.
That is a possibility. It is the responsibility of the Government of Alberta to ensure the Commissioner will have the resources required to get the job done in a timely manner and without unnecessary delays.
How will the umpires be chosen?
A roster may have to be developed and umpires may be recruited form the larger labour relations community. Unions and employers have the ability to put forward the names of proposed umpires; if the parties cannot agree, the Commissioner will appoint one.
Will an Essential Services Agreement be based on Christmas closure, or other similar situations when many employees are not expected to work?
Not exactly. In some circumstances, that information may be relevant evidence. Only services determined to be essential under the definition included in the law, will be required to continue during a strike or lockout.
What happens if a bargaining unit and employer fail to reach an Essential Services Agreement by the 120-day deadline?
Either party can apply to the Commissioner for an extension. The Commissioner has the ability to either grant the extension or impose an Essential Services Agreement.
What if, after a long strike, the employer decides they were able to run efficiently without striking staff and begin lay offs?
While it may be possible for an employer to keep a workplace functioning in the short run with drastically reduced staff, it is very difficult to sustain that in the long run. If the employer can operate efficiently with the levels of staffing laid out in the ESA, then the employer has impaired the effectiveness of the strike, which interferes with our collective bargaining rights. In that case, the union can apply to amend the ESA or apply for interest arbitration.