Reference Re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alta.): Affirming the right to strike for public-sector workers

The impact of court decisions on the landscape of employment law can be monumental, and this is especially true for the landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Reference Re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alta.) [1987] 1 S.C.R. 313. Commonly referred to as the “Alberta Reference,” this case was revolutionary in that it established the legal right to strike for public sector workers in Canada. By doing so, it has significantly influenced labor relations, both in the public and private sectors, and set the stage for a new era in collective bargaining.

Background of the Case

The genesis of the case lay in the amendments to the Public Service Employee Relations Act in Alberta. The amendments effectively stripped the right to strike from public sector employees, replacing it with compulsory arbitration. Labour unions challenged the constitutionality of these amendments, arguing that the right to strike is integral to the freedom of association enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the right to strike is an essential component of collective bargaining under the Canadian legal framework. According to the Court, the ability to collectively withdraw labor is an integral part of the bargaining process and should be constitutionally protected. This was a groundbreaking decision, affirming that public sector workers should not be denied the fundamental rights enjoyed by their counterparts in the private sector.

Impact on Employment Law

Legalizing the Right to Strike

The most immediate effect of the ruling was to invalidate legislative provisions that denied public sector employees the right to strike. This led to revisions in employment statutes across the provinces and has had a cascading impact on labor relations.

Standardizing Collective Bargaining

The ruling clarified the scope of collective bargaining rights and harmonized the rules applicable to both public and private sector employees. This not only helped in preventing labor disputes but also streamlined the negotiation processes.

Setting a Legal Precedent

The Alberta Reference case has been cited extensively in later cases dealing with labor laws and collective bargaining rights. The principles laid out in this ruling have become cornerstones of employment law.

Influencing Public Policy

Post this landmark ruling, legislators have had to take into account the principles set by the Supreme Court when drafting laws affecting labor relations, especially for public sector employees. This has led to more balanced labor laws that take into account the rights of workers.

Shifting the Power Dynamic

Before this case, public sector employees had limited leverage in negotiations, as the absence of the right to strike often left them at a disadvantage. The Alberta Reference ruling has substantially leveled the playing field, enabling public sector unions to more effectively negotiate on behalf of their members.


The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Reference Re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alta.) has had a profound and lasting impact on employment law in the country. By affirming the right to strike as a fundamental component of collective bargaining, the ruling has deeply influenced the dynamics of labor relations in Canada.

This case stands as a crucial milestone in the evolution of Canadian employment law, one that has set precedents still referenced today. Its influence reaches beyond legal circles, affecting the lives of public sector workers and shaping the broader discourse on labor rights and social justice in Canada.