Saskatchewan Federation of Labour members protest the government’s anti-union bills outside the legislature in Regina May 1, 2008. [Photo: Saskatchewan Federation of Labour]
The Saskatchewan government pushed two laws through the provincial legislature this month that take away the right to strike from thousands of public sector workers, and alter other established labour rights and practices.
Bill 5, the Public Service Essential Services Act, requires public sector unions and employers to begin negotiations on essential services at least 90 days prior to the expiry date of a collective agreement. Essential services are defined in Bill 5 as services where a full stop of activity would endanger public health and safety, would cause serious environmental damage or the destruction or serious deterioration of machinery, equipment or premises.
If agreement can’t be reached at the bargaining table, an employer’s list of essential services to be maintained during a strike or lockout would prevail. Under former legislation, unions in Saskatchewan were allowed to designate essential services.
Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich said he finds it unlikely employers will find any incentive to negotiate a fair essential services agreement because failure to do so ultimately allows them to unilaterally define the numbers of workers and even individuals who can’t strike.
“Employers are not going to be too likely to agree to essential services,” Hubich said. “Why would they, when by doing so they may incur liability down the road?”
Hubich says Saskatchewan unions “have always provided emergency services” to the province’s citizens during strikes and the legislation is a reflection of the “hard right” ideological position of the Saskatchewan Party government.
“This is significant political interference. There is absolutely no justification for this legislation because unions have always put public safety first,” he said. “It’s really intrusive because safety has never been an issue.”
The Act applies to every public employer, including the University of Regina and University of Saskatchewan.
Bill 6, the Trade Union Amendment Act, abolishes automatic union certification and raises the minimum percentage of signed cards needed to trigger a vote to 45 per cent, the highest threshold in Canada.
“Unreasonable,” said CAUT executive director James Turk, when asked about the legislation. “There’s nothing fair or balanced in these bills. The overriding intent is to weaken the ability of employees to exercise their right to freedom of association and bargain collectively.”
Both Turk and Hubich point to the June 2007 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that struck down parts of British Columbia’s Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act, while confirming the constitutional right of freedom of association and the procedural right to collective bargaining.
The case involved unions in B.C.’s healthcare sector and their members, who challenged the constitutional validity of the law as violating the guarantee of freedom of association and equality protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Hubich said Saskatchewan public sector unions are now contemplating a similar legal challenge.