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Rethinking Alberta’s essential services legislation

In January 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that "[t]he right to strike is an essential part of a meaningful collective bargaining system" and effectively made blanket bans on public sector strikes unconstitutional. As was required of all provinces in the wake of the ruling, Alberta's then-New Democratic Party (NDP) government enacted legislation in 2016—Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services—that granted most public-sector workers the right to strike as long as essential services were maintained.

Alberta's public sector unions were broadly supportive of this change, as the right to strike was expected to incentivize public sector employers to bargain more earnestly than they did when bans on public sector strikes were in place and disputes were resolved by arbitration. That this right to strike was subject to limits to maintain essential services was (at least publicly) described as a fair trade-off.

During the 2019 provincial election, the United Conservative Party (UCP) promised a raft of changes to provincial labour law, including replacing the portion of the current essential services provisions that bars the hiring of replacement workers when there is an essential services agreement (ESA) in effect. The UCP's expected amendments to Alberta’s labour laws to provide an opportunity to reconsider how to best reconcile workers' right to strike with protection of the public interest.

Interests during work stoppages

A work stoppage—either a strike or lockout—is a contest between a union and an employer. Each side applies economic pressure to the other in the hope of achieving a more favourable settlement than it could otherwise negotiate.

Unions apply pressure mainly by denying the employer their members' labour. In the case of a private-sector employers, a strike is effective by reducing the profits of the employer. By contrast, a strike generates political pressure on public sector employers because they are unable to deliver the services they are mandated to provide. In both cases unions generally want as many of their members to be on strike as possible to maximize the pressure on the employer.

The state has enacted labour laws that create significant procedural obstacles to work stoppages. These barriers, such as compulsory mediation, don't ban work stoppages but drag out the process and make it harder for unions to build support for strike action. While these laws formally apply to both unions and employers, in practice they weigh more heavily on unions.

For their part, employers use a variety of techniques to weaken a union's strike power, including hiring replacement workers (sometimes called "scabs"). Scabs allow the employer to keep operating (to some degree) while the striking workers go without a salary. The only limit on the use of scabs in Alberta is a ban on using replacement workers when an ESA is in place.

Alberta’s essential services legislation

Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services amended the Labour Relations Code and Public Sector Employee Relations Act. The key changes were:

  • The default dispute-resolution process when public sector bargaining reaches impasse became strike-lockout (excepting firefighters and police officers, who continued to use mandatory arbitration).
  • Where employees performed essential services, an ESA had to be negotiated before the parties could access mediation, hold a strike vote or lockout poll, or commence a work stoppage. An essential service was defined as one where (1) the cessation of the service would endanger the life, health or safety of the public, or (2) the service is necessary to maintain the rule of law or public security.
  • ESAs are negotiated between the union and employer under the oversight of a commissioner appointed by the government. The parties may engage the services of an umpire to assist them in settling the terms an ESA.
  • Once an ESA is in place, the employer is prohibited from hiring (or otherwise acquiring the services of) replacement workers during any work stoppage. If an employer is deemed to provide no essential services then there is no prohibition on hiring scabs.

Unlike the other procedural requirements that must be met before a work stoppage can begin, essential services legislation is not formally even-handed. Rather, it is designed to diminish the effectiveness of a strike (and thus the union's leverage) in order to protect the public, which would be harmed if hospitals suddenly closed or the water went off. In contrast, the only part of the existing essential services legislation that in any way diminishes employer's leverage is the ban on using scabs. As previously mentioned, the UCP has promised to repeal this ban on hiring replacement workers.

ESA effects on interests

Alberta's current essential services legislation is far from perfect and appears to have created unexpected and sometimes perverse outcomes. In some cases, the legislation incentivizes employers to seek to evade their obligation to protect the public interest in order to increase their bargaining power, and in some cases effectively renders moot workers' right to strike.

Consider public sector employers that provide relatively few essential services, such as post-secondary institutions. The replacement-worker ban incentivizes these employers to try to avoid negotiating an ESA so the employer can use scabs to undercut the unions' strike power. To the degree that these employers can and do evade an ESA, this incentive undermines the protection of the public interest.

There are, of course, checks and balances in this system. An employer that wants to avoid an ESA must convince the Essential Services Commissioner that the employer provides no essential services. This sounds like a good system, but practically speaking the only way the commissioner would know if the employer was lying is if the union opposed the application. If the union decided not to fight for an ESA, employers could gain an exemption.

A union might choose to not fight for an ESA because such a fight delays the union's ability to move into a strike position. Some public sector employers have been very successful in drawing out ESA negotiations for months by rejecting the need for an ESA or by delaying the disclosure of information necessary to negotiate the ESA. Stalling the conclusion of an ESA undermines workers' right to strike, which is already delayed by other legislative requirements, and can sap a union's capacity to strike. In the meantime, the employer continues operations and the workers do without whatever concessions they were seeking in bargaining.

That unions might not choose to fight for an ESA is a real risk. After six months of employer stalling, my own union had to decide whether we should put the public interest (i.e., advocating for an ESA) ahead of our members' economic interests (i.e., getting to a strike position as quickly as possible). In the end, we decided to protect the public, in part because we also benefited from the scab ban, but that decision could easily have gone the other way.

ESAs and illegal strikes

The ability of employers to delay the negotiation of an ESA also heightens the risk that workers will engage in illegal work stoppages. This is a very real risk in the health- and seniors-care systems, where workers provide many services that are essential. In these workplaces, the essential services legislation incentivizes employers to seek to have virtually the whole workforce deemed essential.

For example, consider a long-term care facility where 85 or 90% of the services have been deemed essential. The tiny fraction of union members who can legally strike can walk the picket line eight hours a day, week after week, in fair weather or foul, but this strike has little chance to succeed because business basically continues as normal. This dynamic undermines the public-policy objective of protecting workers' constitutional right to strike by allowing them only a meaningless strike.

In some ESA negotiations in seniors care facilities, employers have actually argued for a level of staffing during a work stoppage that is higher than the level of staffing with which the employer normally operates. Attempting to find the true level of staffing required to maintain essential services has proven to be an nearly insurmountable problem. Often, whether a task or a job is an essential service is not clear, and employers—who hold most of the information—have an incentive to shade this information. Umpires can be reluctant to rule against employers because the risk of being wrong is that someone could die as a result.

The patience of union members is not endless, and at some point the workers will simply (albeit illegally) walk out. Illegal (or "wildcat") strikes are profoundly disruptive and can bring about the disruption of truly essential services that ESAs are specifically designed to prevent. In these cases, the ESA process itself also undermines the public policy goal of protecting the public. While unions face severe financial penalties for wildcat strikes, they may well turn a blind eye to pending wildcats because they know it may be the most effective to resolve a bargaining impasse.

Analysis and options for reform

Overall, Alberta's experience with ESAs suggests they significantly impede workers' constitutional right to strike. So why did the worker-friendly NDP government enact legislation like this? The answer is likely that the government had to respond to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling while trying to balance the interests of workers and the public. Essential services legislation offers a widely accepted (if ineffective) way to do this. It also creates further barriers to effective and legal public sector strikes—which was in the NDP's interest while in government.

The UCP’s election promise to eliminate the replacement worker ban will have three effects:

  1. For employers with few essential services, eliminating the scab ban eliminates one incentive for employers to resist an ESA. Employers may still stall negotiation to delay job action.
  2. For employers with many essential services, eliminating the scab ban has no effect on the incentive to seek an overly inclusive ESA or stall negotiation to delay job action.
  3. For unions, the removal of the scab ban further undercuts their ability to mount a meaningful strike by giving employers the power to hire replacement workers in addition to being able to stall strikes and negotiate overly expansive ESAs.

The key problem with the current approach is that the process incorrectly assumes that both parties will put the public interest before their respective self-interests. In doing so, it simply creates another venue for employer-union conflict.

Assuming the UCP government follows through on its promise to eliminate the ban on scabs, workers may be better off with an alternative approach to protecting the public interest. For example, employers might be granted a fixed window of time during which they must develop a plan by which to maintain essential services. After this time period has passed, all union members can go on strike or be locked out (assuming the other legislative requirements for a work stoppage are met). This approach ensures the public interest is protected while minimally impairing the ability of public sector workers to exercise their constitutional right to strike. It does this by placing responsibility for maintaining essential services where it belongs: on public sector employers. The employer is best positioned to know what services are truly essential, and the employer can make whatever arrangements are necessary to protect the health, safety, and life of the public, as well as maintain public order.

This might include redeploying managers, hiring replacement workers, and/or negotiating some sort of voluntary and partial coverage with the union. The cost of such arrangements may also incentivize some employers to actually negotiate in good faith (thus reducing the risk of a work stoppage).

While workers would face no onerous legal restrictions on their right to strike, the strike power of unions would remain constrained by:

  • some union members crossing their own union's picket line,
  • employers aggressively planning to maintain services, and
  • public sympathy for strikes waning over time as inconvenience mounts.

The thorniest question about this proposal from the government's perspective is how it can ensure the public interest is protected against an incompetent employer. The government can doubtlessly find ways to require planning and penalize incompetence in the civil service as well as among public sector agencies, boards, and commissions. Should a true threat to public safety arise, it can be dealt with under the public emergency provisions of the Labour Relations Code.

From the perspective of workers, the greatest risk of this proposal is that the government will collude with public sector employers to misuse the public emergency provisions of the Labour Relations Code in order to prevent effective strikes. For example, an employer might make no preparations and the government would then be "forced" to use public emergency (or other) provisions to stall job action. The only check against this sort of collusion is the potential for wildcat strikes. While the state can use the legal system to sanction illegal strikes, if workers and unions are willing to bear the sanctions that result, then the harm caused by the strike continues.

It is very unlikely that the UCP will make such a fundamental change to the essential services regime. This reflects that, like the NDP government that preceded it, the UCP government will benefit from the barrier to effective and legal public sector strikes created by the existing ESA provisions. Instead, the UCP is likely to simply remove the replacement worker ban when an ESA is in place, which will further tip the playing field in favour of the employer (i.e., the government) by delaying job action and undermining workers' strike power.

Photo credit: Paula Kirman. Used with permission.

Bob Barnetson

Dr. Bob Barnetson is a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. His research focuses on the political economy of workplace injury, farm workers, and child labour in Alberta. He’s the author of The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada (Athabasca University Press, 2010), co-editor of Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism (University of Alberta Press, 2016), co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (Athabasca University Press, 2016), and author of Canada’s Labour Market Training System (Athabasca University Press, 2018).

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