There’s a New Sherriff in Town

cowboy with lasso silhouette at small-town rodeo
Sascha Burkard

And her name is Notley!

The Canadian West may be getting a little wilder in the coming months. The Progressive Conservative (PC) Party held power in Alberta for 43 years and in a historical election last year the NDP won a majority Government. Times are changing in the Labour Relations world for Alberta.

For the first time since the 1970’s the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) will have the right to strike.  This is a historic turn for provincial labour laws as the Progressive Conservatives have denied the AUPE the right to strike since its formation.

Under Notley’s NPD government, Labour Minister Christina Gray introduced new legislation that will give approximately 150,000 unionized workers and over 77 different bargaining units the right to strike under what is commonly known as Essential Services Agreements.

Click here to watch Minister Gray’s announcement.

Essential Services agreements are a method to balance the constitutional rights of unionized workers to strike versus the right of a government to protect the safety of the public by ensuring there is access to needed government services.

The AUPE contracts will be expiring in 2017 and the union will be negotiating for the first time under this new legislation. However, everyone knows that Alberta is currently in a drastic economic slump with oil being under $50.00 a barrel. From a labour economics point of view, the union may not want to pull its strike card out this round of negotiations.

Guy Smith, the President of the AUPE, believes the union will be restrained and willing to work with an NDP Government.

Click here to read the article.

After four decades of Progressive Conserve rule in Alberta, the NDP and the Public Sector Unions will be dancing to a much different song sheet in this round of upcoming negotiations. It will be very interesting to watch a pro-union government negotiate with its unions in a very tough economic climate. This is where the “relations” in labour relations really gets tested. Hold on to your cowboy hat and watch how the Wild West unfolds during this upcoming, unprecedented round of negotiations.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Research the benefits and the negatives of essential services agreements.
  2. Explain the terms the “chilling” and the “narcotic” effect of public sector bargaining and provide solutions to reduce their impact.



Interesting Agreements


Vintage poster for Workers Rights
Source: Tribalium/Shutterstock

Recently in Ontario, the provincial government and the public sector union representing correctional workers came to a historic negotiated agreement.  This agreement categorizes and recognizes the work of the bargaining unit members as essential services, on par with police and first responders.

It also means that the union gave up, through the negotiation process, the right to strike.  This guarantees that wages and financial benefits will be determined by a neutral, third-party arbitrator in the future.

Click here to read the Article

Click here to read OPSEU’s announcement of this historic agreement.

As we have learned through our labour relations studies, the right to strike is a basic principle for unionized workers.  Further, it is a powerful leveraging tool during the collective bargaining process.  A strike threat applies legitimate pressure on the employer in order to come to a negotiated agreement.  If there is no successful conclusion through a negotiated agreement, the parties will be faced with a service shutdown through strike action by the union or a lockout by the employer.

Why would any union give up what appears to be a fundamental right?  What would tie the parties together to work toward a successful conclusion in this case?

Common interests.

While we are not privy to the details of what was a very lengthy and difficult negotiation process, as noted in the embedded articles, both parties wanted safety and security.  It appears that it was not in the interest of the government to have to deal with strikes where the public may be put at risk.  It appears that it was not in the interest of the union to put themselves at continued risk if reasonable wage and security increases were not achievable through the traditional process of negotiation.

This may be a case where the common interests of both parties outweighed the positional, combative approach, which may not have led to a successful conclusion for anyone.  Both parties, in this case, had to compromise future bargaining power in order to ensure they would get what they most valued.

Both parties wanted and were able to achieve, by recognizing common interests, a successful conclusion that appears to serve their best interests now and into the foreseeable future.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Identify three common interests shared by the union and the employer (the government) as they are presented in the embedded articles.
  2. What is the main message to the union members in the OPSEU announcement?
  3. Do you agree that giving up the right to strike was the right thing to do in this case? Why or why not?
  4. What benefits are in place for the employer (the government) as a result of this agreement?


Collective Bargaining

When will Governments learn – Collective Bargaining is a constitutional right!

Many say we have come a long way in labour relations in Canada since the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This charter gives all Canadians the freedom of association, and by extension, the right to join a union, have a collective voice, and ultimately the right to collectively bargain.

But in reality, have we progressed very far?

In the mid 1960’s Jean Lesage, the Premier of Quebec stated, “the Queen does not negotiate with her subjects.” That sentiment that public sector workers did not have the same rights as private sector employees was common in that era.  This sentiment continues in the 21 century, where Canadian Provincial governments continue to infringe on the rights of public sector workers, while judges continue to rule in favour of upholding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Click Here to Read the Article

The story behind this infringement of collective bargaining rights goes back four years to 2012 and the passing of Bill 115 – Putting Students First Act.

Click Here to Read the Article

Click Here to Read Bill 115

Bill 115 was a legal slight of hand employed by the Ontario Liberals. The Ontario Liberals did not want to pass back to work legislation as they knew that may be considered illegal. So what did the Government do? They imposed a new collective agreement on the teachers unions and when you have a current collective agreement the union does not have the right to strike. Effectively, the government forced the teachers to go back to work without passing legislation to take away that right.

An interesting twist to the story is that once the collective agreements were in place, the Ontario Liberals repealed Bill 115. Ultimately, it was just like it never existed. Since the teachers were now bound by a collective agreement, the union had no right to strike.  It was a very clever move by the Liberals, but it did not stand up to a court challenge.

In effect, the Ontario Liberals felt they were above the law. It took four years, but it has been ruled that Bill 115 was an abuse of power and that it was illegal.

Public sector labour relations are very complex. Trying to balance public budgets, safety, and services is not an easy tasks. Governments must learn to respect that most public sector employees have the right to freely collectively bargain which includes the right to picket and strike.

Discussion Question:

  1. After reading and researching Bill 115, discuss what type of strain the Bill has placed on labour relations between the School Boards, the Government, and the Teachers Unions.

Tactics and Timing

Playing chess is a game of timing, strategy, tactics, maneuvering, and movement. So too, is the process of negotiating a renewal to a Collective Agreement.

Chess pieces
Source: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

In the public sector, the ability to withhold services is a very powerful game piece that unions use in order to leverage their position at the bargaining table.  Typically, when contract discussions break down the parties are in either a full strike position (Union side) or a lock-out position (Employer side). The complete withdrawal of services in the public sector, through either a strike or a lock-out, can go a long way to force both parties to come to an agreement. However, it can also cause irreparable harm to the reputation and support that is very much needed by both parties from the taxpaying public.  When public sector unions go on strike, the most immediate impact is on the public that the sector serves. The risk of losing public support, as a result of premature strike action, is great.  As such, timing throughout the collective bargaining process for public sector unions  and employers is critical.  Both parties need to know when the right move needs to be made in order to continue the game to a successful conclusion.

As an observer, it is interesting to watch the current negotiations process taking place in the municipality of Toronto. CUPE Local 79 and the City of Toronto have continued to bargain beyond the strike/lockout deadline with updates provided through the media on the progress of these talks.

Click Here to Read the Article

One of the pieces that the union has played in this particular bargaining process is a ‘work-to-rule’ campaign.  This is a tactical move used to build pressure on the employer and, at the same time, one that should sustain support from the public.  Services are still being provided so that families served by daycare workers, for example, are not left to fend for themselves – at this point in time.

Whether or not this type of pressure is enough to push the employer to make a successful counter move remains to be seen.

Only time will tell how this particular game plays out.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Identify three key public constituents that might be impacted negatively by municipal workers going on strike.
  2. What are the benefits to the Union’s decision to implement a work-to-rule strategy rather than a full strike?
  3. What tactics could the Employer use to counter the impact of a work-to-rule campaign?

Doctors on Strike!

For the first time in 40 years Doctors in the UK are going on strike!

Click Here to Read the Article

The British Medical Association (BMA) is a registered trade union certified for all Doctors and Dentists covered by the British National Health Service.

Click Here to Read More About the British Medical Association

Contract negotiations are heating up in the United Kingdom (UK) and they are not going well for any of the parties. The Government is threatening to impose employment terms and conditions and, in response, the BMA is withdrawing their labour, in the form of services to the public and holding one day strikes.

This situation brings up many issues that are relevant to collective barraging in the public sector. The primary concern that is always discussed is, whether certain groups for reason of public safety should not be allowed to strike. Let’s leave that topic of discussion for another day!

What’s of greater interest, that gets little attention in the public sector, is whether or not negative labour relations affects future recruitment in the public sector?

Click Here to Read Some Statistics from the Guardian Newspaper in the UK

  • Physicians applying to be trained as specialists has dropped 9.2%
  • The number of General Physician applications has dropped close to 25%

These sobering statistics are worth pondering, in relation to the future of medical care in the UK. The UK is becoming one of the most populated countries in all of Europe; With the decline in physician training and recruitment, will it also become unhealthier?

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How does negative labour relations affect an employer’s ability to recruit and retain highly specialized employees?
  2. Do public sector employers have to be worried about their public image with employees?