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Strikes and Lockouts 101

By: Laurel Broens

Laurel Broens

Contributing Historian

Laurel is a graduate of the Master of Library and Information Studies program from the University of Alberta and holds a BA in Economics and a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Calgary. She has worked in the information management field for over a decade in a career spanning public and academic libraries and government and legal records management. Laurel is a proud member of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and is the current chair of AUPE Local 002, Chapter 002 which represents more than 4700 Government of Alberta administrative and program services workers in the Edmonton area. In her spare time, Laurel runs the popular labour history Twitter account @labour_girl.

If a union and an employer are unable to reach an agreement through negotiation, one side may try to resolve the issues by initiating a work stoppage. The following FAQ answers some of most common questions about two types of work stoppages: strikes and lockouts.

What is a union?

Unions are organizations formed by workers in a particular trade, industry, or organization. Its members work collectively to improve wages and working conditions at their place of employment. A union will democratically elect leaders who are responsible for representing the collective interests of workers and bargaining with employers. A union is the only kind of organization that can legally compel an employer to negotiate with its workers in a formal process called “collective bargaining.”

What is a strike?

When workers represented by a union are unable to reach an agreement during the collective bargaining process, they may choose to withdraw their labour and stop reporting to work. This kind of work stoppage is a called a “strike.” Strikes are used to pressure an employer to accept the union’s terms, move towards a compromise, or persuade the employer to resume negotiations.

Strikes are pressure tactics that may improve the bargaining position of union members, but do not always guarantee all of the workers’ demands will be met. They are advantageous because strikes present a show of strength and solidarity to the employer.

What is a lockout?

Unlike strikes, which are employee-driven, lockouts are initiated by an employer by closing a place of employment, suspending work, or refusing to continue to employ their employees. In a lockout, an employer prevents workers from accessing the worksite and suspends salaries/wages to pressure them to accept the employer’s terms. Lockouts often include removing access to workplace technology systems, such as email.

Lockouts give an employer more power during collective bargaining and can put workers in a position where they are pressured into accepting an unfavourable agreement to end the lockout. On the other hand, lockouts can sometimes be advantageous to workers when public perception is in their favour.

What happens on a picket line?

During a lawful strike or lockout, workers may choose to picket their workplace to attempt to persuade people not to do business with the employer or cross the picket line. Picketing is a way for workers to communicate their grievances and seek public support. While picketing, workers often hold signs, march on a picket line, repeat chants protesting their employer, and attempt to block or slow access to the worksite. Picketing must be peaceful and is restricted by law to the place of employment.

During a strike or lockout, picketing is not mandatory. However, workers who choose not to picket cannot return to work and will not receive any compensation from the union or the employer.

What is an essential services agreement?

“Nurses Picket in Etobicoke” 14 June 1976. Photo Credit: Pat Brennan. Toronto Star Photographic Archives, Toronto Public Libary/TSPA_0017033F

Some collective agreements require signing an Essential Services Agreement (ESA) before the parties can move forward with a strike or lockout. For example, in British Columbia and Alberta, an ESA is mandatory if essential services will be impacted by a work-stoppage.

An ESA is a negotiated contract between an employer and the union that outlines job tasks that must continue to be provided in the case of a strike or a lockout to protect the health and safety of the public. According to the Alberta Labour Relations Code, “essential services” are those services that, if interrupted, “would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public,” or “are necessary to the maintenance and administration of the rule of law and public security.“

If a worker’s position is considered essential, they may be required to continue reporting to work to perform their duties during a work stoppage. For example, a children’s services caseworker. Others may be on call and only required to report to work under specific situations. For example, a wildfire fighter may only be required to report to work in the event of an active fire.

What is the timeline of a legal strike or lockout?

While the exact details vary from province-to-province, generally, the following conditions must be met for a legal strike or lockout to occur:

1. Negotiation

Any collective agreement between a union and an employer must have expired, and the parties must have entered into a period of negotiation known as “collective bargaining.” During the negotiation period, the parties are required by law to attempt to reach a settlement. It is common for bargaining to start and stop several times before reaching the end of negotiations.

If negotiators for both sides reach a settlement, the union will ask its members vote on whether they would agree to accept the settlement — a step known as ratification. If they vote in favour, a new contract is signed and negotiation ends without a work stoppage. However, if the members vote against the settlement, negotiations must restart from the beginning. Eventually if the parties are at an impasse and are not able to come to an agreement, they will move into the mediation phase.

2. Mediation

In some provinces, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, legislation requires mediation before parties can legally strike or lockout. In others, like British Columbia, this stage is optional and only occurs at the request of one of the parties or by the Minister of Labour.

Mediation services help resolve disputes in collective bargaining negotiations. A mediator, who is a neutral third party, will meet with the two sides to encourage settlement. The do not make final decisions but instead help facilitate communication and assist the parties to clarify their positions. The mediator’s goal is to reach an agreement that is acceptable to both parties.

The mediator will listen to the employer and the union’s arguments for their respective proposals and make recommendations. However, these recommendations are not binding and either party is free to accept or reject them. If both parties accept the mediator’s recommendations, the union will undertake a ratification vote to determine if the members agree to accept the settlement.

Sometimes a mediator will say they cannot make recommendations because they parties are too far apart. If one or both of the parties decides not to accept the mediator’s recommendations or if the mediator is not able to make recommendations, the parties will enter a mandatory cooling-off period, which can last between two and 14 days, depending on the province.

3. Strike Vote / Lockout Poll

If the parties are unable to reach an agreement through negotiation and mediation, following the cooling-off period, the bargaining committee may initiate a strike vote. A strike vote asks members of the union to express whether or not they are willing to withdraw their labour and go on strike to put pressure on the employer to accept their settlement terms.

A strike vote can happen by mail, by in-person ballots at the worksite, or online, and is supervised by the provincial labour relations board. The ballots will be counted and if more than 50% of the membership votes in favour, the union will be in a legal position to strike. While 50% is the minimum, a super-majority of 67% or higher is much more favourable and shows the employer that the workers are willing to stand together to fight for their demands.

Like a strike vote, the employer may choose to conduct a lockout poll following the cooling period amongst members of its negotiation team. If successful, the poll would put the employer in a legal position to lockout their employees.

4. Strike / Lockout Notice

If the bargaining committee is satisfied that the strike vote gave them a strong enough mandate to authorize a strike, and if the employer continues to refuse to accept their demands, union leadership can call a strike by giving the employer notice. Likewise, an employer can serve the union with notice of a lockout following the lockout poll.

The required notice length ranges from 48 to 72 hours, depending on the province. However, neither party must immediately give notice after taking a vote/poll. They have a legislated number of days (90 to 120 days, depending on the province) following the vote/poll to serve notice.

What makes a strike or lockout illegal?

Work stoppages that happen outside the collective bargaining process are illegal in Canada. Workers without a union are not legally able to go on strike. Similarly, unionized workers are not legally allowed to strike without holding a strike vote during the collective bargaining process. Illegal strikes are often referred to as “wildcat strikes.” In the event of an illegal work stoppage, either party can ask the provincial labour board to hold a hearing. If the strike or lockout is found to be illegal, the board will order it to stop.

One recent example of an illegal strike occurred in October 2020, when healthcare workers in Alberta walked off the job to protest announced job cuts. This action was technically “illegal.” Within 24 hours, the Alberta Labour Relations Board ordered the workers to return to work. However, just because a strike is illegal doesn’t mean it will not be effective for the workers. This particular wildcat strike brought the issues the workers were facing to the attention of the public and helped build support.

Illegal/Wildcat Strike: AUPE healthcare wildcat strike on October 26, 2020, Credit Globe and Mail, October 26, 2020.

Are striking workers still employees?

Yes. Although they are not working and do not receive a paycheque, striking workers are still considered employees. They cannot be terminated for being on strike. When the strike ends, they must be reinstated in preference to any employee hired to replace them during the strike.

Are workers paid during a strike or lockout?

During a work stoppage, workers are not paid by their employer. Some unions offer “picket pay” depending on the length and circumstances of the work stoppage. This often comes with certain parameters, such as requiring the worker to spend 30 hours in a week on a picket line. Such financial support comes straight from the union’s strike fund and no union dues, taxes, EI or CPP will be deducted from this type of compensation. Some provinces protect pension rights and health benefits, and some unions will cover health benefit premiums during a strike or lockout.

Can striking workers be forced back to work?

Yes. Federal and provincial governments can pass back-to-work legislation that orders the end of a work stoppage, either by imposing binding arbitration or a new contract without negotiation. In the case of arbitration, the union and employer submit what they are willing to accept to a government-appointed arbitrator, who will determine a compromise both sides are legally required to accept. Unions that ignore back-to-work legislation can receive hefty fines or jail time.

Back-to-work legislation was first used in Canada in 1950 after railway unions launched a nationwide stride. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent introduced a bill ordering an end to the strike that imposed a settlement process on the workers and the rail companies. This tactic was also used in 2011 to force Canada Post employees back to work.

Can an employer hire replacement workers?

During a work stoppage, some employers will try to continue running their organization. This decision may entail asking managers to pick up some of the work normally done by the workers who are on strike or locked out. Some employers will attempt to hire new workers or transfer workers in from another location. In some provinces, such as British Columbia, this kind of hiring is a violation of the Labour Relations Code and employers who engage in this practice can be subject to fines.

Replacement workers are often referred to with pejorative terms, such as “strike-breakers” or “scabs”.

What are other types of job actions?

Instead of going on a full-scale strike, workers may decide to take another type of job action.

Work-to-rule is an action in which employees do their jobs exactly as outlined in their job descriptions and contracts. This approach may include taking full breaks, ending shifts promptly at the end of the day, and refusing voluntary duties. While work-to-rule is a well-recognized tactic in the labour movement, the term “quiet quitting” has recently gained popularity and describes for similar practices in non-unionized and/or white collar workplaces.

Rotating strikes occur when some, but not all, employees go out on strike. The workers effectively take turns on strike, which helps ease the financial burden for workers and can make it difficult for employers to plan because the set of striking workers keeps changing.

Overtime bans are a type of job action in which workers refuse to take on any overtime work, opting only to work the set of hours they have been contracted to.

What is a general strike?

A general strike involves a work stoppage in which workers from multiple employers go on strike to achieve a common goal. General strikes are not limited to a single union or industry and may have broader political goals than workplace issues or wages.

One famous example is the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, in which more than 30,000 workers across various sectors brought economic activity in the city to a halt for more than a month. It was the largest strike in Canadian history.

General Strike: Winnipeg General Strike, 21 June 1919. Credit L.B. Foote, Library and Archives Canada

Resources

FAQ: Strikes, Lockouts & Picketing, Alberta Labour Relations Board.

Strikes and Lockouts, Government of Saskatchewan.

Strikes, lockouts, picketing, and replacement workers, British Columbia Labour Relations Board.

Frequently Asked Questions on Strikes and Lockouts, York University Staff Association.

A primer on strikes and lockouts, Athabasca University Faculty Association.

Days not worked due to strikes and lockouts, 1976 to 2021, Statistics Canada.

Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, The Canadian Encyclopedia.

FAQ: Back-to-work legislation, CBC News.

Everything You Needed to Know about Unions: Perspectives from an Alberta Retail Grocery Worker by Catherine Eden and Michael Hughes (2020), UFCW Local 401.