Essential Services Legislation Questions and Answers

Essential Services Legislation Questions and Answers

Bill 4 – An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services

1. Wasn’t there a court ruling that requires Alberta to change its legislation?
A Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2015 stated the right to strike is a fundamental right for unionized workers. This made it obvious Alberta’s prohibition on strikes and lockouts for public sector workers is no longer appropriate and must be changed. This decision was reinforced when the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench ruled in 2015 certain sections of the Labour Relations Code and the Public Service Employee Relations Act are invalid and must be replaced by legislation that allows for strikes and lockouts.
The Supreme Court ruled Alberta must implement new legislation by March 31, 2016. This deadline has since been extended to the end of the spring 2016 sitting of the Alberta Legislature.
2.  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.

3. 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.

4. Will police officers and fire fighters be permitted to strike? If not, why not?
No. It is unanimously agreed by employers and employee unions that these public sector workers are critical to public safety and a continued prohibition on strikes and lockouts is justifiable. Compulsory arbitration will still be used to resolve disputes.

5. What is actually going to change?
Approximately 150,000 public sector employees in Alberta currently don’t have the right to strike, and their employers don’t have the right to lockout during labour disputes. Moving to this new type of legislation will give these employees the right to strike, although essential public services must be maintained. Employers and unions will be given the responsibility of negotiating how those essential services are to be provided during times of labour disputes.

6. Should Albertans be concerned about not being protected or having access to critical services if and when strikes happen?
No. The key to the new legislation is that essential services must be provided to the general public during strikes. Albertans shouldn’t have to worry about their care and safety every time two parties can’t reach an agreement at the bargaining table.

7. Which public sector workers can strike under the current legislation in Alberta today, and which ones can’t?
Unionized workers who can currently strike include:

  • teachers and support staff at K-12 schools
  • healthcare employees at non-approved hospitals and those not working for  Alberta Health Services
  • all staff at privately owned and operated continuing (senior) care facilities
  • all staff at not-for-profit continuing care facilities (unless an approved hospital)
  • municipal workers (except police and fire fighters)

Unionized workers who can’t currently strike include:

  • all unionized Government of Alberta employees, including those at agencies, boards and commissions
  • nurses and auxiliary nurses, technical, professional and support staff  working at approved hospitals  and some publicly operated continuing care facilities that are designated as approved hospitals
  • post-secondary faculty and support staff
  • police, fire fighters and emergency medical services

8.   Which unionized employees will be covered by the new legislation, and will therefore have an obligation to negotiate an essential services agreement?

  • all Government of Alberta employees
  • employees of agencies, boards and commissions
  • non-academic staff at post-secondary institutes
  • employees of Alberta Health Services
  • employees of other approved hospitals (can include continuing senior care facilities, health centres and religious-based hospitals)

9. How will the essential services legislation affect municipalities?
The proposed legislation will not apply to most municipal operations. Police, firefighters and non-Alberta Health Services ambulance operators will continue to use compulsory arbitration to solve disputes and are not subject to the legislation. Emergency medical services operated by Alberta Health Services will be subject to it, and will need to have essential services agreements in place.

10. Will facilities run by private companies or non-profit groups be affected?
No. For the time being, government is following the direction of the courts and is recommending unionized workers at these facilities retain their unrestricted right to strike. This would include privately run medical laboratories, as well as private and some non-profit continuing care facilities. Further review of the application of essential services legislation to these facilities is required before government makes a decision on whether to apply it to this sector.

11.  Who will be able to strike and who won’t be – in other words who is an ‘essential services worker’ and who isn’t? Who will decide?
Determining what services are essential and which employees are required to provide those essential services is something that must be negotiated in advance by the employer and union as part of their Essential Services Agreement. Each situation will be slightly different, so it’s critical the parties work co-operatively to set up an agreement that meets the spirit of the law that allows certain unionized workers the right to strike, yet still protects the public by ensuring essential services are maintained.

Modified: 2016-03-15
PID: 15346