Alberta public sector workers, including nurses and hospital staff, may soon be allowed to walk off the job as part of a labour dispute.

The government tabled Bill 4, the Essential Service Act, on Tuesday. It would grant workers the right to strike as long as unions and employers can agree on a contingency plan.

Currently, all public sector workers employed by the province are banned from striking. Labour negotiations must go through binding arbitration if they can't be resolved.

Labour Minister Christina Gray said the new legislation is fair, and puts the responsibility for reaching settlements into the hands of employers and unions.

"In most cases, they will no longer have compulsory arbitration to fall back on to settle their disputes," Gray said. "They will need to focus their efforts on achieving agreements together."

Contingency plans will be overseen

The new bill follows a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that upheld the right for workers to go on strike, meaning bans against all civil servants walking off the job are no longer allowed. 

"There will be some disruption to public services in the event of a strike or lockout, but essential services will remain available," Gray said.

The Labour ministry estimates the legislation will affect 150,000 provincial workers, from Alberta Health Services (AHS) to non-academic staff at universities and colleges.

Contingency plans will be overseen by a new commissioner, and will be arbitrated by what the province calls "umpires," who will respond quickly to disputes.

Creating those plans will be time consuming, and that work should start soon, according to Elizabeth Ballerman, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, a union that represents hospital and health-care workers.

"The first round will be the most difficult and then we will have some templates that we can use," Ballerman said.

Legislation to change bargaining practices

Gray said the government is anticipating a number of large-scale labour negotiations with health-care unions in 2017. She said the government will go into those negotiations with the economic climate in mind, but will now have to take the possibility of a strike into consideration.

"This is another factor, but I think it's important that we're respecting our workers rights to strike," she said.

Labour lawyer Andy Sims led the government's consultation on the bill. He said the right to strike gives the province some leverage as well.

"The government, rather than being bound by third-party arbitration is also prepared to say, 'This is our economic position, we can't go any further,' " he said.

Sims said late stage bargaining before a strike can be very sobering and effective for both sides.

In cases where the work is considered so essential that the vast majority of workers would be needed to maintain safety, negotiations will still go to binding arbitration.

The commissioner will also be able to change the agreements mid-strike if health, safety or security is at risk. 

While some workers can apply for an exemption to avoid the contingency plan during a strike, the employer would be allowed to hire temporary replacement workers to fill in.

Wildrose labour critic Grant Hunter said he understands that the bill had to come forward because of the Supreme Court decision, and so far the opposition is "cautiously optimistic."

He said he will look for more clarity on the scope of the commissioner's abilities.

Firefighters, municipal police, and EMTs and paramedics not hired by AHS are exempt under the legislation, and will not be allowed to strike. Unions and employers in those cases agreed strikes are not in the best interest of the public.

Unions with negotiations already undergoing compulsory arbitration will have 120 days to submit a joint contingency plan to the commissioner. Those unions would then have the option of going on strike.

Alberta and Prince Edward Island are the only two provinces without legislation to allow essential public sector workers to strike.