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A worker plies his trade in Regina. A new Supreme Court ruling allows for greater workers' rights. Photo by Eric Westhaver

Unions plowed the prairies, and built the cities where we trade. After a Supreme Court decision, their right to strike is saved.


On Jan. 30, a Saskatchewan law that restricted the working rights of public sector employees was struck down by the Supreme Court. The Public Service Essential Services Act, more commonly known as “Bill 5”, was ruled unconstitutional by a 5-2 majority.


The law change means that it is now legal for all Saskatchewan public employees to strike in a labour dispute. “Prior to this decision by the Supreme Court, workers were, in accordance with the Essential Services Act, prohibited from their now-enshrined constitutional right to strike because of government interference,” said Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour.


Under Bill 5, certain public sector employees were considered to provide “essential services,” meaning that in the case of a work stoppage, these employees would still have to work. Union leaders saw the “essential services” status as one that undermined the rights of both workers and unions. Saskatchewan is one of four provinces that had essential services laws, including Newfoundland and Labrador, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia.


When Bill 5 and its companion, Bill 6 – an Amendment to the Trade Union Act – were introduced by the Saskatchewan Party in 2007, the provinces’ unions took action.


“We did make a submission to the government prior to it being brought into law, but it was, to my point of view at least, ignored,” said Tom Graham, president of CUPE Saskatchewan. “The legislation that was finally passed was exactly the same as the stuff they introduced in the previous sitting.”


Graham added, “It bounced up to the Supreme Court of Canada, decisions were made, and on January 30, they made their decision.”


While Bill 5 has been repealed, Bill 6 is still part of Saskatchewan law. Under Bill 6, employees who wish to become unionized must cast “secret ballots” in the workplace, and 45 per cent of workers must now sign union cards before unionizing.


The law change will have an effect on employees at the University of Regina, as well. The U of R Faculty Association was one of many parties that teamed up for the Supreme Court case.


“For other unions on campus, like CUPE who represents maintenance employees and janitors and secretaries, I know some of them have come under the definition of essential services as was prescribed by the bill,” said Sylvain Rheault, the current chair for URFA.  “For most URFA members, we didn’t gain anything, but because we’re part of the bigger labour movement, we all consider it a big victory.”


While Bill 6’s ongoing presence is troubling for unions, Graham is hopeful about the repeal of Bill 5. “It’s restored a bit of balance at the bargaining table for us. We will have to sit down - and we’re quite willing to do that with the government - to discuss something realistic to protect public safety and to protect these collective bargaining rights for working people.


“I’m hopeful we’re not just handed some new legislation, and be told, ‘Here, agree to this.’ I would prefer from CUPE’s perspective to sit down and have some real discussion here about what would work and what wouldn’t work,“ added Graham.


Hubich also considered the downfall of Bill 5 a good thing, saying, “It’s significantly rebalanced the power relationship that exists between the employer and workers,” adding, “The government is required under this decision to change their legislation to comply with the order of the court, and they’ve been given one year to do that.”


After the Supreme Court’s decision on Jan. 30, the Saskatchewan government must comply with the Court’s order within one year. This means the law must be either significantly altered or completely removed.


While Bill 6 is still on Saskatchewan’s books, Bill 5 will be gone soon. For Saskatchewan’s labour leaders, while it isn’t the total victory they were looking for, that’s still a very good thing.

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