Stick A Bow On It
When the Saskatchewan government embarked on an overview of labour law this spring, some pretty contentious ideas were in play. An end to the 40-hour work week, eliminating the long-standing practice requiring union members to pay dues in recognition of benefits received (the Rand Formula) and making it legal to pay disabled workers less than ordinary workers.
So when none of those measures, and a few others that were pretty reactionary too, were in the draft bill that Minister Don Morgan unveiled in the legislature on Dec. 4, a lot of people probably breathed a sigh of relief.
Was this relief premature?
The new act is 188 pages long and consolidates provisions from 12 existing acts, so it’s no minor undertaking. And it does contain some progressive measures, like indexing the minimum wage to inflation, boosting fines for occupational health and safety violations, and dropping the qualification period for maternity and adoption leave from 20 to 13 weeks.
But NDP labour critic David Forbes questions the government’s rationale. “Why did we go through an exercise that’s going to cost at least $700,000?” he says.
“Many of the issues that are being addressed could simply have been dealt with through fine-tuning of existing legislation. If you look at the new act, there’s a series of parts. What they are is all the old acts rolled into a new act, with changes.”
Releasing the bill in the waning days of the fall session, with Christmas season in full swing, has let the government escape scrutiny. But come the spring session, they’ll have to defend their proposals in the legislature.
“We’ll be spending the next few weeks going through the act, trying to pick out what’s been added and what’s been dropped, and what the intended consequences of those changes are, and the unintended consequences,” says Forbes. “The Minister’s approach of saying ‘Just trust me’ doesn’t wash.”
Charles Smith, an assistant professor of political studies at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, says the government’s hard-sell at the start was likely deliberate.
“Politically, it makes sense to float some really dangerous initiatives, then pull back,” says Smith. “But the concern is that you start to see death by a thousand cuts.”
While the bill doesn’t mount an all-out assault on organized labour, it does chip away at collective bargaining in the province. One measure, for instance, erases a requirement that collective agreements and union certification transfer automatically when a new business successfully bids to provide cafeteria, janitorial and security services in a government-owned building. That’s an open door to privatization.
As well, the government is beefing up audit requirements for unions and expanding the latitude of employers to request decertification votes.
“More government intrusion into labour unions is a concern,” says Smith. “Most are run democratically; most provide important information to their membership as part of their constitutional structure. So why does the government feel the need to intrude? Clearly, there are ideological reasons for that.”
Another problem is that a lot of details are going to be ironed out later in regulations. Changes to regulations have to be advertised, says Forbes.
“But they don’t receive the same public scrutiny as changes to legislation do,” he says. “Cabinet can make a recommendation, it can be advertised in the Saskatchewan Gazette and it can be done in a couple of weeks.”
And one entire section on essential services — where the government is currently involved in litigation that seems destined to end up in the Supreme Court — is marked with a “placeholder.”
“If they do intend to pass it by the end of the spring session, it makes you wonder how amenable they are to serious amendment,” says Smith. “Ultimately, they have a majority government and don’t have to listen to the opposition. Now, Minister Morgan has said he’s open to consultation. So we’ll see.”