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For tens of thousands of AUPE members, the legal right to strike has existed only since Alberta changed its restrictive labour laws in 2016. This change also gave your employers the legal ability to lock out members of the union.

Because there hasn’t been a legal strike in Alberta under an Essential Services framework, union members have many questions.

Regardless of how they happen, labour disputes can be one of the most effective tools union workers have to pressure their employer to drop demands for rollbacks and instead achieve a better working life. The guarantee of arbitration no longer exists as it had for some bargaining units before 2016, and your employer is under no obligation to agree to any demand your bargaining team makes. If you don’t pressure your employer, the chances of getting a good contract are low. And while organized pressure can’t guarantee top results, the more pressure that you and your co-workers generate, the greater your odds for getting what you deserve.

As a lockout or strike becomes likely for your bargaining unit, more discussion and education on these issues will happen for picket captains and other members.

A legal strike is an employee-driven work-stoppage during collective bargaining to pressure an employer to accept the union’s terms, move further to a compromise, or to get the employer back to the bargaining table. A strike is a pressure tactic which often improves the bargaining position of union members, but it can’t guarantee a total victory. In many bargaining units, an ESA must be in place for a strike or lockout to be legal. Employers cannot legally discipline union members for supporting a legal strike.

AUPE members of the affected bargaining unit hold a strike vote. If a majority supports the strike, then AUPE’s president has the authority to call a strike with advice from your elected bargaining team. The union must serve 72 hours’ notice before a strike begins.

A lockout is legally the same as a strike but initiated by the employer to bar whichever employees it wishes from the worksite, whenever it wishes to do so, to pressure them to accept the employer’s terms. Employers sometimes use lockouts to divide the workforce, working to convince others to cross the picket lines while keeping others out. Lockouts give the employer more power during collective bargaining. For many bargaining units, an ESA must be in place for a lockout to be legal.


Employers know they won’t achieve the rollbacks they’re demanding through negotiations. This means a lockout is an option for any employer seeking cutbacks from their staff. This is a strategic question that your employer will assess – will they make more money through bargaining if they pressure you via a lockout? Your best defense is being prepared. If the employer believes you can stand strong on the picket line, they will be much less likely to lock you out. Union members have no say in whether their employer locks them out.


In an Essential Services strike, bargaining unit members (Designated Essential Services Workers or DESWs) and managers must provide essential services. ESAs also prohibits employers from bringing in replacement workers or scabs to do the work of DESWs With Essential Services legislation, there are fewer members out on the picket line because some employees are required to provide labour. Did the UCP change the law for employers?

Labour code changes give employers the ability to apply to the labour board to opt out of the ESA process, but the larger AUPE employers are unlikely to use it. Employers like AHS or the GOA will require thousands of essential workers to operate. Smaller employers may look at staffing a strike entirely through scab labour.

The AUPE will handle all sick or emergency call-ins during a strike. If you are scheduled for a DESW shift but are unable to report to work for any reason, contact AUPE so the union can find a replacement for you.

AUPE assigns all shifts based on which workers are qualified to be DESWs, not on a worker’s request to keep working.

Before a strike or lockout, AUPE will communicate with members about how they will assign DESWs shifts and how they will communicate the shift schedule to DESWs.

In order for a strike or lockout to achieve improvements for your contract, it is essential that all non-DESWs support their picket lines.

The employer cannot hire or allow any type of scabs to do any of the Essential Services. If the employer breaks this rule, AUPE can file a dispute with the umpire to deal with the situation immediately. If necessary, AUPE can file a complaint with the Labour Relations Board which can penalize the employer with fines.

It’s crucial for members to communicate with AUPE during an Essential Services strike or lockout. AUPE needs to know if bargaining unit members who aren’t working DESW shifts are reporting to work.

Picketing is still allowed during an ESA strike, and an important part of the dispute. Picketing is one way to have an idea of what is happening at your workplace, and who is entering and exiting. It can also be an important way to communicate to fellow workers, managers, and clients about the importance of your dispute.


Alberta’s restrictive Labour Relations Code broadly defines what is considered “strike action,” and work to rule could be a form of strike action under that definition. DESWs should ensure they are performing only their specified essential duties, but DESWs should know that any campaign to “work to rule” could be considered a prohibited strike action if reported to the Alberta Labour Relations Board.

If normal work rules allow DESWs to leave their workplace during breaks and lunch, then DESWs are welcome and encouraged to join their fellow union members on the picket line. Open lines of communication inside and outside your workplace will be part of a successful strike. Off shift, you are always free to join any legal picket line.

DESWs are still entitled to union representation and will have the support of AUPE and their Membership Services Officer in cases of discipline or investigations that may occur. Picket captains should be aware that this could mean AUPE MSOs would have to enter the worksite to provide representation.


Dispute resolution can happen through the essential services processes, but in some cases, grievances will also be a good step to take to defend your rights as a DESW. If you suspect your employer is violating the Essential Services Agreement or your Collective Agreement, call AUPE right away to talk to your MSO.


More questions?

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If you have any more questions related to ESAs or wish more information, contact our Member Resource Centre at 1-800-232-7284 and ask them to direct you to an ESA officer. You can also contact your Membership Services Officer (MSO) and ask them to get an ESA officer to contact you.