Alberta labour laws could face shakeup after Supreme Court decision

EDMONTON – A Supreme Court of Canada decision could lead to major shakeups in Alberta’s labour legislation by forcing the province to reconsider its contentious prohibition on strike action by many public sector employees.

“It’s huge. I don’t think it could be overstated how big this decision is,� said Patrick Nugent, outside counsel for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which acted as an intervener in the case.

The high court on Friday granted an appeal by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour of that province’s essential services law that allows the government to unilaterally restrict employees from striking. By a 5-2 margin, the court struck down the law, saying it was unconstitutional.

The decision leaves room for some jobs to be declared “essential services,� but the standards for such a designation mean a sweeping designation won’t be acceptable.

The decision’s impact could be most acutely felt in Alberta which, for decades, has prohibited strike action by many public sector employees, including all employees of Alberta Health Services, ranging from food services workers to nurses. It also includes direct public employees and post-secondary employees.

“I think this ruling calls into question a lot of long-standing legislation in the province,� said Nugent.

“There’s a lot of legislation that is going to have to be revisited in light of today’s decision.�

A call to the Department of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour was not returned Friday.

Eric Adams, an associate law professor at the University of Alberta, noted that despite Alberta’s long history of prohibiting strike activities, it also has a history of binding arbitration that was not present in the Saskatchewan legislation. How the government will react to Friday’s decision, however, is a big question.

“All is not lost on the government’s side; they’ll say (they have) reasonable limits on the freedom to strike,� Adams said. “But I do think there will be a number of unions that will have a stronger argument that the government has been overly broad in its blanket prohibitions.�

However, Adams warned the “law doesn’t tend to work in dramatic shifts� and said the government could say its limitations are reasonable. This would undoubtedly prompt legal challenges by the province’s unions, who would argue specific sections of the province’s labour laws are too broad and interfere with the right to strike and collectively bargain. A legal battle could take years.

“If the government is as concerned about the financial situation as they claim, I’d think they’d be sitting down, and instead of spending money on lawyers fighting legislation the Supreme Court has said is not valid, they should be sitting down and re-writing some of the labour codes,� said David Harrigan, director of labour relations for the United Nurses of Alberta, which was also an intervener in the Saskatchewan case.

Nugent, from the AUPE, said more workers with the right to strike will not necessarily mean more labour disruptions in Alberta.

“Unions aren’t eager to strike; neither are members. It’s a last resort,� he said. “What I think is likely is not necessarily more disruptions in the provisions of services but more fair outcomes in collective bargaining because unions will have this last resort in the background.�

With files from Postmedia News

azabjek@edmontonjournal.com

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