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Supreme Court rules on essential workers' right to strike

For the second time in a month, the Supreme Court of Canada has made a landmark ruling on public-sector labour law. The first ruling, which we discussed in a recent post, gives Mounties the right to engage in meaningful collective bargaining. Now, in a case involving public-sector unions in Saskatchewan, the Court has upheld public-sector employees'€™ right to strike.

In 2008, a Saskatchewan law was passed to restrict public-sector workers'€™ right to strike if the provincial government deemed that the services provided by the workers were essential. For example, essential workers may include nurses, correctional officers and highway workers.

The Saskatchewan law left the determination of essential services ultimately up to the provincial government, which could and did order striking public employees back to work. The Supreme Court ruled that this unilateral right was unfair to workers, who were denied alternative ways of resolving their labour disputes.

Specifically, Justice Rosalie Abella, writing for the majority, said that the essential-services law violated workers' Charter right to freedom of association. This same argument was applied in the recent collective bargaining case involving the RCMP.

It should be noted that Justice Abella wrote that governments can still restrict striking, but only when necessary, and governments should not regard all public-sector workers as essential-service providers.

The Court has given the Saskatchewan government a year to enact a new labour law that is fair to public-sector employees. The ruling could also affect labour laws throughout Canada.

The labour relations lawyers of Overholt Law represent clients in a wide variety of employment law matters, including strike management, collective agreement negotiation and dispute mediation. If you would like to learn more about these issues, then our employment law website is a good place to start.

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