With employers reluctant to cough up necessary information, AUPE members will play a crucial role in creating Essential Services Agreements
By Mariam Ibrahim, Communications Staff
As Alberta''s labour movement contends with a new era in our province, one marked by some of the first updates to our labour laws in a generation, there''s a lot of learning on the job.
Case in point: Essential Services Agreements.
Also known as an ESA, these documents are now mandatory before many public sector workers across Alberta, along with workers in private long-term and continuing care facilities, can exercise their legal right to strike.
An ESA is negotiated between the employer and the union and establishes a minimum level of services that must be provided in the case of a job action such as a strike or lockout.
According to Alberta''s labour laws, "essential services" are those services that "if interrupted would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public, or that are necessary to the maintenance and administration of the rule of law and public security."
In the case of a strike or lockout, the ESA determines which specific tasks within a job site would fall under that definition, and would therefore need to continue during a job action. While the work all AUPE members do is important and vital to our province, "essential" carries a very specific definition in the labour law context.
ESAs are negotiated separately from - but at the same time as - a collective agreement; indeed, if an ESA is needed because of a strike or lockout, it will be filed and referenced before a collective agreement is ever signed. Under the law, an ESA must be negotiated and filed before a strike, lockout or mediation can begin.
AUPE is in the midst of a major year of bargaining, with approximately 75,000 of the union''s members represented at bargaining tables. In many of those cases, ESA negotiations have already begun, but unfortunately the process has often been a slow one. For most people involved, it''s also a brand new process, but it''s important to get it right.
"It''s crucial that an ESA is as strong as it can possibly be because a strong ESA means the union is in a better position during bargaining or during any potential job actions like a strike," said AUPE President Guy Smith.
"Having the legal option to go on strike is one bargaining chip that helps to level the playing field with the employer, who has historically held much of the bargaining power. Ensuring we have a strong ESA that establishes the minimum level of service means we can maintain strength in bargaining and ahead of any possible strikes."
As a result, AUPE is relying on disclosure from employers, but they''re not always eager to hand over information they have traditionally held very close to their chest.
In fact, it has typically been like pulling teeth to get information from employers about AUPE members and their worksites. And while that information has always been an important part of guiding the union''s positions and strategies going into collective bargaining, it has become vitally important now. In some cases, Alberta''s ESA Commissioner has had to intervene to ensure employers provide that disclosure to the union.
"For AUPE to do its job effectively, we need transparency from the employer. Determining which tasks in a worksite can be considered essential under the law can only be accomplished with the relevant information about who does which tasks within a bargaining unit on a specific worksite," President Smith added.
In fact, dragging out negotiations at both the collective bargaining table and the ESA table could ultimately serve the employer''s interest: Stalling ESA negotiations also prevents members from exercising their legal right to strike, since the ESA must be completed and filed before any legal job action can happen.
"We''re disheartened to see employers in the province undermining the spirit of our labour legislation, but it''s nothing new," said President Smith. "If employers stall ESA negotiations, they can hope to prevent a show of worker solidarity such as a legal strike, in an attempt to wear our members down. That''s why input from our members is so crucial. We''re depending on them to keep the union in a strong position during bargaining."
This is particularly important in creating an ESA because the union needs to know which members of the bargaining unit are doing what work and which ''non-union'' workers might be called upon by the employer during a job action, President Smith noted.
"When an ESA is in place, the employer is prevented from using scabs - replacement workers - to do the work of the bargaining unit. But if the employer has many non-union workers at their disposal during a strike or lockout, our position would be weakened. That''s why this disclosure - and our members'' involvement - is such an integral part of this process," he said.
Ultimately, while many AUPE members now enjoy the legal right to strike when they didn''t previously, it''s important to note that it is not an unfettered right. Instead, it''s tightly controlled with laws and regulations that govern the bargaining process.
It has been AUPE''s position that controlling its members'' right to strike in that way is unconstitutional, and the union has repeatedly taken that stance in submissions during government consultations. And in many ways, having the legal right to strike hasn''t changed anything about how AUPE has operated in the past.
"We know there are limitations and gaps that still exist in our labour laws," said President Smith. "We will continue to advocate for better laws that make life more fair for working people in this province, but in the meantime, we need the active input of our members to ensure AUPE is able to represent your best interests at the bargaining tables."