Bill 7 allows Alberta’s academic staff the freedom to strike
In March 2016, the Alberta Government ran into a bit of a hiccup when they set about to comply with the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that the right to strike is fundamental and all public sector workers should be able to strike. They discovered the entire labour relations regime for academic staff in Alberta was so far out of line with labour legislation in Alberta and nationally, that introducing the right to strike would take much more work than with any other part of the public service.
The reason for this is primarily that academic staff relations in Alberta have, up until now, been governed by the province’s Post Secondary Learning Act (PSLA), and the PSLA did some very odd things vis-a-vis labour relations. For example, it gave the board of governors at each university the exclusive right to determine who would form part of the academic staff association—in other words, the employer got to arbitrarily determine who was in the union. The PSLA also very specifically spelled out how the various staff associations were to be governed, and even listed what they had to include in their bylaws.
Most significantly in the context of the Supreme Court decision, however, was the requirement that any disputes in bargaining between the universities and their academic staff associations be settled through compulsory binding arbitration. It was this clause that essentially removed the right to strike from academic staff, and this was at the crux of what the government needed to change.
One of the other complications that existed in extending the right to strike to academics was the fact that academics actually play a part in the governing of universities through their participation on academic bodies and through a process referred to as collegial governance. This dual management/worker role does not fit squarely with the existing definitions in the labour code. Likewise, the fact that professionals, like engineers and architects, who work and teach on campuses are prohibited by their professions from belonging to a union, although they are full members of the existing academic staff associations.
After more than a full year of consultations, surveys, round-tables and research, the government finally introduced the legislation that would bring them into full compliance with the Supreme Court decision and fully extend the right to strike to academic staff at Alberta’s colleges and universities.
Bill 7, the “Act to Enhance Post-Secondary Academic Bargaining,” accomplishes everything the government set out to do and meets the expressed wishes of almost all the academic staff associations across the province. It eliminates compulsory binding arbitration, brings academic staff associations under the province’s labour code, maintains the integrity of the associations by classifying professionals as academic staff, and extends long overdue labour rights to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.
Because the government is under the gun to come into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling, they have made the prohibition on compulsory arbitration effective immediately. That means any association currently in bargaining will have to resolve their bargaining under the new strike/lockout provisions and will not be able to use binding arbitration. That has the potential to cause some problems for those associations, as they are not currently prepared to bargain under those conditions and have no protocols or funds in place in case of a strike or lock-out. It will put pressure on them to move quickly to put those protocols in place and build (or subscribe to) adequate strike funds, which could compromise their ability to secure the best possible agreement. This lack of a transition period is hopefully something that can be amended before the final bill is approved.
This also means universities and their academic staff will have to move quickly to develop essential services agreements, designating which staff members will be able to continue working in case of a strike, but that should not be overly difficult given there are strong precedents and examples from across the country that can be followed and replicated.
The bill ultimately extends to academic workers in Alberta the rights that academic staff across the country have enjoyed for years and brings their rights fully in line with those of other public sector workers in the province. This is legislation that is long overdue, and it is clear the extra year of consultation and research resulted in the government getting it almost exactly right. After 43 years of fake and contrived after-the-fact ‘consultations,’ it is refreshing to see a government consult genuinely with all stakeholders and actually integrate what they heard into legislation. Alberta’s academics, students, and the public interest will all benefit as a result of this strong piece of legislation, especially if the transition period issue can be dealt with.