In light of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4 decision, the Alberta government has undertaken a review of the Labour Relations Code (“LRC”) and the Public Service Employees Relations Act (“PSERA”). Following a consultation with affected employers, unions and employees, on March 15, 2016 the Alberta government introduced Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services (“Bill 4”).

Prior to the amendments, public sector employees governed by PSERA and the LRC could not strike. The new legislation, colloquially known as the essential services legislation, allows for strikes and lockouts of public sector employees who could not previously strike. This includes health care workers employed by Alberta Health Services and other approved hospitals, employees of the provincial government and agencies, boards and commissions and non-academic staff at post-secondary institutions. The amendments do not impact firefighters, non-Alberta Health Services ambulance operators and their attendants, police officers, academic staff and graduate students at post-secondary institutions.[1]

The amendments will allow employees to strike while still maintaining essential services. In order to maintain essential services, the employer and the employees’ union will negotiate essential services agreements. The amendments require the negotiations to be in good faith and make every reasonable effort to enter into an essential services agreement. The following must be included in all essential services agreements:

  1. provisions that identify the essential services that are to be maintained by employees in the bargaining unit in the event of a strike or lockout;
  2. provisions that set out the classifications of employees, and the number of positions in each classification, required to perform the essential services referred to in clause (a);
  3. provisions that set out a method by which the employees capable of performing and qualified to perform essential services will be assigned to perform those services during a strike or lockout;
  4. provisions that set out the procedures to be followed in responding to emergencies and foreseeable changes to the essential services that need to be maintained during a strike or lockout;
  5. provisions describing changes or permitted changes, if any, to the terms and conditions of employment that are to apply to designated essential services workers under sections 130(2) and 147(4) of the Act and sections 24.1(2) and 46(2.1) of the PSERA;
  6. provisions that identify sufficient umpires, but at least one umpire, to be available to provide timely resolution of disputes under section 95.7; and
  7. any other provisions specified in the regulations.

Should parties be unable to agree on the contents of an essential services agreement, they may agree to use an umpire to mediate and, if necessary, may seek guidance from the Commissioner (the individual who oversees the administration of the essential services legislation, as defined in the legislation), to assist with settling the essential services agreement.

Once an essential services agreement is reached, it must be filed for each round of collective bargaining. The parties must also declare to the Commissioner: (a) whether the agreement ensures that essential services are maintained during any strike or lockout; and (b) whether the provision of essential services required by the essential services agreement during a strike or lockout will substantially interfere with meaningful collective bargaining. The Commissioner has several options should an essential services agreement be unacceptable, including making unilateral amendments to the agreement.

An essential services agreement accepted for filing is binding on: (a) the employer; (b) the bargaining agent; and (c) every employee of the employer who is in the bargaining unit represented by the bargaining agent.

Bill 4 has since undergone its second reading and amendments during the Committee of the Whole and on April 16, 2016, the Bill passed its third reading in the legislature. Bill 4 is currently waiting Royal Assent. The deadline to amend the legislation was extended to the end of the spring 2016 sitting of the Alberta Legislature.

Once given Royal Assent and the amendments have come into force, a number of public sector employees will now have the right to strike with only essential services designated workers being prohibited to do such.