Overview

Collective bargaining is the negotiation process between an employer and a union.

The goal of the negotiation is to reach a written collective agreement that becomes the contract that sets out the terms and conditions of employment for unionized employees. These agreements are often 2 to 4 years in length.

A government-funded employer is one who is given funding from the provincial government to provide services to Albertans. This includes areas such as health care, education, post-secondary education and excludes municipal governments.

Public sector employees in Alberta

Alberta's public sector has more than 230,000 unionized employees working in the core public services of healthcare, K-12 public education, post-secondary institutions and the public service. The public service includes correctional officers, meat inspectors, social workers, consumer protection jobs and many others.

There are 149 separate collective agreements for public sector employees that are negotiated with the unions.

In 2019/20, Alberta spent more than $27 billion on public sector compensation. That represents 54% of the government’s operating budget and is the largest single expense in that budget.

Essential Services Agreements

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canadian workers have the fundamental right to strike. The Court said the right to strike is essential to even the playing field between workers and employers.

The province amended its legislation to ensure it protects Albertans’ access to public services while respecting public sector workers’ bargaining rights.

Essential Services Agreements (ESAs) allow strikes and lockouts by public sector workers and their employers, while still requiring essential public services to be available to the general public during labour disputes.

Essential services are defined as public services that would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public if interrupted. These services are also necessary to the maintenance and administration of the rule of law and public security.

An ESA must be negotiated and agreed to by the parties, filed with the Alberta Labour Relations Board and concluded before mediation can begin.

Essential services in Alberta include:

  • provincial public service
  • provincial agencies, boards and commissions
  • public health care, including most ground ambulances
  • continuing care, medical laboratories and blood services
  • post-secondary faculty and support staff

Learn more about essential services.

Bargaining 101: Terms and definitions

  • Bargaining agent: a trade union acting on behalf of employees in collective bargaining or as a party to a collective agreement with an employer or employers’ organization.
  • Bargaining rights: the exclusive authority given to a trade union to represent a group of employees of a particular employer or to a registered employers’ organization to represent a group of employers in the construction industry. Bargaining unit: a group of employees appropriate for collective bargaining.
  • Collective agreement: an agreement in writing between an employer or employers’ organization and a bargaining agent, containing terms or conditions of employment that are binding on the employer, the trade union and the employees covered by the agreement.
  • Collective bargaining: a method of determining wages, hours and other conditions of employment through direct negotiations between a trade union and an employer.
  • Dispute: when an employer and a trade union representing the employees cannot agree upon the terms and conditions of a collective agreement.
  • Good-faith bargaining: bargaining in which the two parties make every reasonable effort to reach a collective agreement.
  • Illegal strike: An illegal strike is a violation of any of the requirements of the Labour Code that provide for a legal strike. Often the term ‘wildcat strike’ is used for an illegal strike.
  • Labour Relations Code: the basic statute regulating labour relations and collective bargaining in Alberta.
  • Lockout: the closing of a place of employment by an employer, the suspension of work by an employer, or the refusal by an employer to continue to employ employees for the purpose of compelling its employees, or to aid another employer in compelling its employees, to accept terms or conditions of employment.
  • Lockout notice: an announcement of an employer’s intention to lock out employees, given in writing by an employer to the trade union and the mediator. The employer must provide 72-hours’ notice of lockout.
  • Mediation: a method of encouraging and assisting in the settlement of collective bargaining disputes in which the parties to a dispute use a third person, called a mediator, to assist them.
  • Mediator: a person appointed by the Director of Mediation Services or, in some cases, agreed upon by the employer and the trade union, to mediate.
  • Notice to bargain: a notice, served by either the trade union or employer on the other, to initiate collective bargaining.
  • Bargaining mandates: government, via the Provincial Bargaining Coordination Office, sets bargaining mandates for the public sector, which includes compensation limits and term of agreement.
  • Picketing: patrolling around but not on an employer’s premises to increase the pressure on the employer to come to an agreement with the trade union.
  • Proposal vote: a vote conducted by the Labour Relations Board to determine whether or not a party wishes to accept a collective bargaining offer made by the other party, a mediator’s recommendation or the recommendation of a Disputes Inquiry Board.
  • Ratification vote: union members vote on their respective tentative agreements. The outcome determines whether the agreement is accepted or rejected.
  • Strike: a cessation of work, a refusal to work, or a refusal to continue to work, by two or more employees acting in combination with a common understanding for the purpose of compelling their employer or an employers’ organization to agree to terms or conditions of employment.  Or to aid other employees to compel their employer or employers’ organization to accept terms or conditions of employment.
  • Strike notice: an announcement that the employees will go out on strike at a certain time, given in writing to the employer and the mediator by the trade union. A union must provide 72 hours’ notice to the employer before taking strike action.
  • Strike vote: a vote by employees to decide if they are prepared to take strike action to settle a dispute. More than 50 per cent of those voting must vote in favour of the strike for employees to engage in a legal strike.
  • Trade union: an organization of employees that has a written constitution, rules or bylaws, and has as one of its objectives the regulation of relations between employers and employees.

For full details about the bargaining process, read: A Guide to Alberta's Labour Relations Laws.

Provincial Bargaining Coordination Office

The Provincial Bargaining Coordination Office (PBCO) is the central agency that coordinates collective bargaining with the broader public sector employers. It is responsible for:

  • providing a disciplined, collaborative, long-term approach to public sector bargaining that achieves fair settlements that are consistent with the government's fiscal goals
  • providing objective data and analysis through its negotiations support and research and analysis functions to help support government's interests as employer and funder of the broad public service
  • coordinating bargaining with public employers in post-secondary institutions, health, education, government and its agencies, boards and commissions

It also supports the development of provincial bargaining mandates, which sets strategic direction in public sector bargaining, including term and fiscal limits, for collective bargaining on behalf of all major public sector employers.

The PBCO works in accordance with the Public Sector Employers Act.

Alberta Labour Relations Board

The Alberta Labour Relations Board is an independent and impartial tribunal responsible for:

  • administering the Labour Relations Code in dealing with disputes between employers and trade unions (and employees represented by trade unions)
  • interpreting and applying the legislation governing collective bargaining including:
    • how and under what conditions a trade union may claim the status of exclusive bargaining agent for a group of employees
    • how the employer and union must bargain to reach or renew a collective agreement
    • what kinds of union and employer conduct is prohibited
    • when the parties may have recourse to a lawful strike or lockout

Visit the Alberta Labour Relations Board website for more information about the types of matters addressed by the Board.