A recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada has solidified teachers’ right to strike.
On Jan. 30, the court struck down as unconstitutional a Saskatchewan law that prevents public-sector employees from striking. In a 5-2 decision in the case of Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, the court held that the Saskatchewan government was impairing employees’ right to free association by unilaterally designating groups of employees as providing essential services and, on that basis, denying them the right to strike.
The decision is important to Alberta teachers because teachers are one of the few large groups of public sector workers with the right to strike in Alberta, said Sandra Johnston, co-ordinator of the Teacher Welfare program area at the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
“It makes it much more difficult for governments who are thinking about taking that away,” she said.
The ruling is significant as it is one of several in which the Supreme Court has advanced labour rights, Johnston said. Also, the ruling potentially diminishes the province’s capacity to outlaw strikes without providing other mechanisms (such as a fair binding arbitration process) or to use legislation to unilaterally impose salary settlements and/or changes in previously negotiated conditions of employment.
“It solidifies our position, and it gives us some protection,” Johnston said.
Writing for the majority, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella stated, “Given the breadth of essential services that the employer is entitled to designate unilaterally without an independent review process, and the absence of an adequate, impartial and effective alternative mechanism for resolving collective bargaining impasses, there can be little doubt that the trial judge was right to conclude that the scheme was not minimally impairing.”
The ruling goes a long way toward establishing a constitutionally protected right to strike and will affect public service unions at both the federal and provincial levels, Johnston said.
While Alberta teachers have not been designated as providing essential services and have been able to exercise their right to strike, other public sector unions have been swept up by provincial legislation that effectively makes any strike action by employees of the provincial government illegal, she said.
Previously, illegal strikes by the United Nurses of Alberta and, more recently, the Alberta Union of Public Employees, have occasioned heavy fines and the threat that the unions might lose their ability to compel the employer to automatically collect and remit union dues. ❚