end include: _nav
author_tags looks like: jason foster , bob barnetson , susan cake

A Thumb on the Scale

Alberta Government Interference in Public-Sector Bargaining

In 2024, about 200,000 Alberta workers will be negotiating new contracts, including 80% of unionized public-sector workers. This report examines the ways governments, and specifically the Government of Alberta, interfere in public-sector collective bargaining through both legislative measures and non-legislative actions. It also explores how this growing interference may impact the 2024 bargaining round in Alberta.

For decades, governments have intervened in public-sector bargaining. Legislation restricting public-sector workers’ right to strike, ending labour disruptions, limiting the scope of negotiations, and imposing contract provisions has been common across jurisdictions and political party lines. In recent years, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a series of decisions, extended the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ protection to collective bargaining and striking. In theory, these decisions reduce the governments’ ability to interfere with public-sector bargaining. In practice, however, the impact of these decisions has been both complex and limited.

The first part of the report examines the history of government interference with public-sector bargaining in Canada. Our analysis of government legislation finds that the rate of government interference in Canada has increased markedly since 2000, despite Supreme Court decisions seemingly restricting the scope for such intervention. Surprisingly, the rate of interventions has almost tripled during that period.

Further, the analysis shows strategic adaptations by governments in response to the Supreme Court’s decisions Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn v. B.C. (colloquially called Health Services) and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan (colloquially called SFL), such as altering the type and form of legislative interference they employ. For example, one new approach is using broad bargaining mandates with which public-sector employers must comply, marking a departure from legislating specific contract provisions (a common form of intervention pre-Health Services).

Governments have increasingly formalized and made more sophisticated their non-legislative interference as well. Non-legislative interference consists of formal and informal actions taken outside of legislation designed to influence outcomes at bargaining tables and can include placing pressure on employers, becoming directly involved in bargaining, or threatening unions.

The evidence suggests that governments across Canada have been playing a game of cat and mouse with working people and their unions. Specifically, governments are (mostly) complying with Canada’s evolving labour rights but they are doing so in the most minimal ways possible to protect governments’ ability to achieve their political and fiscal goals. They are also adopting new legislative and non-legislative tools to enhance the effectiveness of their interference.

The second part of the report examines the recent history of the Alberta government’s involvement in public-sector bargaining. Alberta has actively intervened in public-sector labour relations, passing 16 pieces of legislation restricting public-sector bargaining rights since the early 1980s. In recent years, Alberta has used both legislative interventions and enhanced non-legislative tools to influence public-sector bargaining. This shift could have important impacts on the upcoming 2024 bargaining round.  

In 2019, the government passed the Public Sector Employers Act (PSEA) which, among other things, authorizes the Minister of Finance to issue secret and binding bargaining directives to all public-sector employers, excluding municipalities and private post-secondary institutions. The introduction of the “secret mandate” —  a set of directives given to employers that cannot be shared with unions or publicized in any way — was a first in Canada.

Non-legislatively, the government has focused on enhancing the role of the Provincial Bargaining and Compensation Office (PBCO, formerly called the Public Bargaining Coordination Office). Created in 2015 and tasked with supporting “the government’s interests as an employer and funder,” the PBCO is responsible for ensuring government mandates are implemented at over 250 public-sector bargaining tables. The PBCO was first active in bargaining during the 2017 round (under the NDP), with its involvement expanded in the 2020 round.

The report provides an in-depth analysis of the 2020 bargaining round based on interviews with union negotiators and a government official. It was not possible to interview employer negotiators as they continue to be subject to the confidentiality provisions of the PSEA.

This report also finds that the secret mandates bogged down negotiations and made the need for mediation more likely. The involvement of the PBCO added an element of professionalism to government interventions in the 2020 round, but its overall impact served to entrench and solidify government interference, leading to further strain in the bargaining relationship between employers and unions. Further, the PBCO’s unwillingness to fully acknowledge its role as gatekeeper sowed distrust between the union negotiators and the government as a whole.

This report further finds that the 2020 round continued a decade-long trend of intensified government involvement in public-sector collective bargaining in Alberta, marked by the introduction of secret mandates and the active management of the bargaining process across the public sector by the PBCO. Coupling this trajectory with the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) political agenda and confrontational approach to workers and unions led to an unprecedented degree of intervention, both legislatively and informally. The significance of this finding is two-fold. First, government interference is becoming more effective due to its enhanced legislative and non-legislative tools. Second, the introduction of secret mandates is a novel development in the ongoing evolution of government interference, one that is likely to be replicated elsewhere.

As Alberta heads into another round of public-sector bargaining in 2024, government intervention is expected to persist and evolve. Indeed, the recent introduction of Bill 5, which amends the Public Sector Employers Act allowing for the creation of bodies to facilitate employer coordination of bargaining across sectors, is evidence of that continued evolution.

It is also expected that the government will impose mandates designed to minimize public-sector wage increases and to standardize agreements across sectors. The report concludes by offering several options for how public-sector workers and their unions can respond to growing government interference, both at the bargaining table and through increased political pressure.

Bob Barnetson

Bob Barnetson is a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. He is the author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (with Jason Foster), Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada, and Canada’s Labour Market Training System.

Read more by this author

Susan Cake

Dr. Susan Cake is an assistant professor in human resources and labour relations. Susan has been with Athabasca University since 2020. Prior to joining AU, Susan was a worker advocate specializing in the areas of occupational health and safety, workers’ compensation systems, and pensions. Susan’s current research interests include union relevance and renewal, care work, and early learning and child care. Susan is the current chair of Child Care Now Alberta and a board member of Child Care Now.

Read more by this author

Jason Foster

Jason Foster is the director of Parkland Institute and a professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University. Jason is the author of Gigs, Hustles, & Temps (2023) and Defying Expectations: The Case of UFCW Local 401 (2018), as well as co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (2016). His research interests include workplace injury, union renewal, labour and employment policy, and migrant workers in Canada. He is committed to sharing research to as broad an audience as possible, so that it might contribute to policy change and making people’s lives better.

Read more by this author |  Follow on Twitter

Related reading

Get timely research and analysis from Parkland in your inbox.

Subscribe to email from Parkland

Your donation supports research for the common good.

Donate to Parkland Institute
end include: pages_show_blog_post_wide