On May 27, 2016, Alberta's new Essential Services
legislation came into force.
Bill 4 – An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling
Governing Essential Services is the Alberta Government's answer
to the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Saskatchewan
Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, which recognized a
constitutional right to strike. Prior to that decision, public
sector unionized employees in Alberta and elsewhere across the
country had been prohibited from striking or being locked out.
The new legislation applies to all Government of Alberta
employees; employees of agencies, boards and commissions;
non-academic staff at post-secondary institutions; Alberta Health
Services employees; and employees of other approved hospitals. At
its most basic level, the new legislation is meant to prevent only
those who are employed in providing "essential services"
from striking or being locked out.
The legislation aims to do this by defining "essential
services" as those services, which, if interrupted,
"would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the
public" or those services "that are necessary to the
maintenance and administration of the rule of law or public
In addition, the legislation tasks employers and unions with
creating "essential services agreements" before
proceeding to collective bargaining. These agreements must include:
the essential services that must be maintained during a strike or
lockout; the classification and number of employees required to
perform those essential services; the methods by which employees
will be assigned to perform essential services during a strike or
lockout; any changes to the terms and conditions of employment; and
the identity of "umpires" or decision-makers to resolve
disputes concerning essential services agreements when they
The new legislation also provides for the appointment of a
Commissioner, who has relatively wide-ranging powers under the
legislation to decide disputes over which employees should be
considered "essential." The Commissioner also has the
power to refuse essential services agreements, change the terms of
the agreements in emergency situations, appoint umpires, and
resolve complaints alleging bad-faith bargaining. Following the
coming into force of the new legislation, the government appointed
Edmonton lawyer Gwen Gray, who also holds the title of vice chair
of the Alberta Labour Relations Board, as Commissioner to fulfill
Now that this new legislation is in force in Alberta, employers
covered by the Act will be required to negotiate essential services
agreements and must therefore consider, and be able to justify,
which of its employees perform essential services and what and who
will be required to maintain those essential services during a
strike or lockout, including whether any out-of-scope employees can
be used. Even with the definition of "essential services"
in the legislation (as compared to Saskatchewan, which has also
enacted new essential services legislation that does not contain
such a definition), there will undoubtedly be much debate to come
over what precisely is "essential" and what is not.
Field Law is well-placed to help employers navigate the issues
and disputes that will arise under this new legislation.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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