Essential Services Legislation in Alberta

In January 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan (SFL decision). In this decision the Supreme Court of Canada found that the right to strike is fundamental to the collective bargaining process and is constitutionally protected under section 2(d) (Freedom of Association) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter).

In the SFL decision, the Supreme Court of Canada asserted that an employee’s right to withdraw labour when collective bargaining negotiations break down is critical to a meaningful process of collective bargaining.

The Court also said that many employees in the public sector provide essential services, and the maintenance of these essential public services during a work stoppage is a proper concern for governments and public sector employers. This means that legislation can restrict the right to strike for some employees involved in providing essential services, so long as these restrictions do not substantially interfere with meaningful collective bargaining.

Additionally, on March 31, 2015, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta declared that the strike prohibition in the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA) and the strike prohibitions relating to regional health authorities (i.e., Alberta Health Services) and Approved Hospitals in the Labour Relations Code violate the Charter and are without force and effect. The Court suspended the declaration of invalidity for one year to allow time for the Government of Alberta to introduce replacement legislation.

Government intends to develop new legislation for Alberta’s public sector that aligns with the Supreme Court decision. This will be done by creating a form of essential services legislation that provides a right to strike for many public sector employees, while also ensuring the health, safety and well-being of Albertans is protected in the event of a public sector work stoppage.

What is an essential service?

Essential services are those public services that if interrupted would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public, or that are necessary to the maintenance and administration of the rule of law and public security.

What is essential services legislation, and how is it different than what currently exists in Alberta?

Currently in Alberta there are several pieces of labour relations legislation that govern public sector workers. These include the Labour Relations Code and the Public Service Employee Relations Act, both of which forbid strikes by employees and lockouts by employers. Instead they require compulsory arbitration, which is a process that uses a neutral third party to listen to both sides in a dispute and impose a binding settlement on both parties.

Essential services legislation allows strikes and lockouts by public sector workers, while still requiring ‘essential’ public services to be available to the general public during such labour disruptions. It represents a fundamental change in public sector labour legislation for Alberta since it would remove the prohibition on strikes and lockouts in many cases.

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Modified: 2016-03-16
PID: 15235

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