July 2010

North of 49°
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Saskatchewan Government Targets Workers’ Rights

Premier Brad Wall’s right-wing Saskatchewan Party government continues its legislative assault on workers’ rights, recently passing one of the most far-reaching attacks on collective bargaining rights for construction workers in Canada.

Passed in May, Bill 80 alters labor law to allow for organizing "wall-to-wall," not segmented by job description. Previously, unionized workers in the construction industry had to belong to a craft-specific union, which bargained with contractor associations on a provincial-wide basis.

The fear of many labour activists is that the legislation will open the door for employer-favored unions like the cross-craft Christian Labour Association of Canada to get a toehold in the industry, weakening the power of the building trades and driving down working standards and benefits for all construction workers.

CLAC is infamous throughout Canada for raiding other unions by cozying up to anti-labour employers and undercutting wages and benefits.

"CLAC will come in and offer an employer a contract that is 17 percent less than what we are asking for," said Regina Local 2038 Business Manager Gary Vieser. "The contractor will then sign the deal with them without even talking to the workers first."

For many building trades leaders who believed Wall’s promise—made shortly before he became premier—that he would not alter existing labour law in the construction industry, Bill 80 is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

"The men and women in Saskatchewan’s construction industry hoped that Wall meant what he said in 2007 and that he would keep his word," wrote Saskatchewan Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council Business Manger Terry Parker in the Star Phoenix. "Sadly, our experience with Bill 80 is a cautionary tale of mistruths, falsehoods and broken commitments."

Neither Wall nor Labour Minister Rob Norris bothered to consult the building trades before introducing the legislation, but letters obtained by Parker through the provincial Freedom of Information Act show that Saskatchewan Construction Association President Michael Fougere had written the government in 2008 asking precisely for the changes contained in Bill 80.

Most Anti-Labour Government in the Country

The bill is only the latest in a string of laws passed by what many Canadian labour leaders consider the most anti-union government in Canada.

Elected in 2007, Wall’s Saskatchewan Party almost immediately introduced two bills meant to weaken workers’ rights. One gives employers the authority to prevent their employees from going on strike by declaring them providers of an essential service, while the other eliminates the use of majority sign-up in recognizing a union.

"Even some employers are angry about this, because even if they voluntarily want to recognize the wishes of their employees to form a union, they still have to stage an election," Vieser said.

The situation has gotten so bad that last year the International Trade Union Confederation included Saskatchewan in its annual global survey of places with the worst records of workers’ rights violations.

"It’s a dubious distinction to be cited in the same publication as the likes of countries such as Colombia, Burma, Belarus, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Iran, Pakistan and the Philippines, where trade union leaders are routinely murdered or imprisoned for defending workers’ rights," said Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Larry Hubich in a statement.

The International Labour Organization, a global body charged with overseeing international labour standards, found the province guilty of violating employees’ right of freedom of association.

Wall also recently broke another campaign promise by signing the New West Partnership, an inter-province free trade agreement almost identical to the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement, a 2007 trade pact between Alberta and British Columbia that Wall promised to keep Saskatchewan out of.

Like TILMA, the New West Partnership gives corporations and private individuals the right to sue provincial governments over any regulation, public policy or law deemed harmful to investment, which includes laws regarding public health, safety and environmental standards.

"It’s all about driving down working standards to their lowest common denominator," Vieser said.

The Grassroots Fights Back

Vieser says organized labour is responding with grassroots political action, looking to chip away at the Saskatchewan Party’s legislative majority by focusing on seven seats in which the party won by less than 300 votes in preparation for the next election.

"We’ve been heavily leafleting those areas, going door-to-door," he said. "We’re making it clear to voters that these attacks are on all working people."

"Saskatchewan used to be Canada’s pioneer in progressive labour legislation," said First District Vice President Phil Flemming. "We must stop Wall and his policies from becoming a model for anti-worker politicians throughout the country."