Workers held their own in 2012, says head of Saskatchewan Federation of Labour
Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich
Published Wednesday, December 26, 2012 7:46AM CST
CTV Regina web journalist Ken Gousseau recently sat down with Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich to discuss how the past year went for the group and workers in the province.
CTV News: What were some of the highlights and lowlights of the past year in terms of labour in Saskatchewan?
Larry Hubich: I think some of the highlights were that our affiliates got a number of collective agreements in the current climate that resulted in settlements and the ability of them to move forward with their membership and work collaboratively with their employers. So, in that regard, those were some of the positives. As well, there’s a fairly high level of employment in the province, and so that’s always a positive. As a result of that, most of the union folks are engaged in full-time occupations, although there’s always a little bit of pressure downward or certain segments that may go through spurts or experiences of unemployment. Right now, there’s a bit of a slowdown in the potash sector and there’s been layoffs of a couple of months for folks in the potash sector because of reduced demand but all in all, the employment prospects are pretty strong, so that’s a positive for workers.
CTV News: Were workers in the province better off this year than last?
Larry Hubich: I think that they held their own, and I guess it depends on what you’re calculating as being better off. I think economically, the indicators show that Saskatchewan has kept pace with other jurisdictions in terms of compensation for work. As a matter of fact, we’ve moved up in terms of the position that we’re in relative to other provinces. I think we might be the second-highest average industrial wage in the country. Those kinds of things are reflective of a pretty hot economy, so Saskatchewan is benefitted by that and so are people who work here. So, economically, I think you might be able to say that workers are better off, except that if, along with that additional compensation the cost of living has increased, then you’re at the same level, right? Housing has gone up a huge amount of money. So, while salaries may have gone up five or six per cent, if housing has doubled, then you’re really not better off, at least not economically, because it’s not costing you more to live than it did before under a lower salary. So, it’s really relative. In terms of rights and entitlements, there have been some challenges in the province, not the least of which was the residue from the government’s first term in terms of their labour legislative initiatives, particularly around Bills 5 and 6. In February of this year, we got a decision from the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench that ruled that one of the government’s signature pieces of legislation (the Essential Service Public Services Act) was unconstitutional, it was struck down. When we say are worker’s better off, I think it’s a good thing that they’ve got unions that can defend their rights in this province. I think that’s good that we’ve been able to hold off the -- I don’t know if I’d describe it as anything other than an attack from some very aggressive, anti-union employers and some of the political parties that they support. We’ve seen it manifest itself in places like Wisconsin and elsewhere. And in Saskatchewan at the end of last year and the early part of this year, there was som
Workers held their own in 2012, says head of Saskatchewan Federation of Labour
e musing by the government that they were maybe going to go down that path as well. I’m talking right to work legislation and allowing workers to opt out of unions and elimination of the Rand formula and a couple of those things, and I think that would have been wrong-headed. It might have resulted in the same kind of situation that we had develop with respect to Bills 5 and 6. So, I’m a little bit encouraged that the government chose not to go down that road, and I think it’s as a result of the process we engaged in around the legislative review, particularly the one that was just announced last week with the new bill. Now, there are some concerns flowing out of the bill, not the least of which was that the process that we engaged in -- while it was it was certainly an improvement over Bills 5 and 6 and how the government handled those -- it was wholly inadequate. The reason that it was wholly inadequate was because we’re now confronted with a massive bill that encompasses 12 different pieces of legislation, and all of that was done by providing an opportunity for input over a 90-day period and then a subsequent period of the minister’s advisory committee to take a look at where the government was going, what the departments were doing with respect to merging those 12 pieces of legislation into one. There was stuff we didn’t talk about at all in that minister’s advisory committee that we only had half a dozen meetings of a day each over that period of time and there were surprises in the legislation when it was tabled on Dec. 4. Things that we never even touched on in any way, shape or form found their way into this new bill.
CTV News: Do you feel there has been a lack of consultation, then?
Larry Hubich: I think the process would have been useful if we would have focused on one piece of legislation and done a good job of it. But I think the approach that was adopted was too ambitious, and I think that sentiment would be echoed by everyone who sat around that table, all 20 of us – the nine from the employers, the nine from labour and two others. I have no doubt in my mind that there would be a fairly strong consensus that that was a bit of a big bite, because we weren’t able to chew it properly. I don’t think that we get good public policy when we rush through legislation. There’s a bill that was tabled two days before Bill 83, which was a bill on how we deal with immigrant workers and foreign workers. It’s 22 pages long and it sets out the terms and conditions under which recruitment agencies, immigration consultants and so on operate and what the rights are that flow to foreign workers, temporary foreign workers or immigrant workers. That 22-page document is a bill that took two years of consultation to achieve. The bill we now have is 186 pages long, it encompasses 12 pieces of legislation, and we did it in under half a year. As a matter of fact, there was a 90-day consultation window established by the government. The devil will be in the detail. While I’m encouraged that some of the things that were originally mused by the government, particularly those things that I indicated before didn’t appear in this new bill. I don’t think we did a service to Saskatchewan citizens by rushing this process.
CTV News: How big of a victory was it for the labour movement in the province when the essential services law was ruled unconstitutional?
Larry Hubich: It’s a significant victory for us and you’ll be aware that the government has appealed it and we just came out of the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal hearing a couple of weeks ago, where five justices at the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard arguments around whether or not Justice Dennis Ball’s decision should stand. I guess we’ll see when they render their decision sometime in the new year whether or not they’re going to uphold Justice Ball. But Justice Ball made a number of really important statements in his decision. Number one was that while it wasn’t absolutely a constitutional requirement to consult, there’s a very high expectation around the duty to consult on these matters, and if a government expects legislation to withstand a charter challenge, then they’re well advised to engage in a real, meaningful consultation. He actually referenced other decisions that are even stronger in terms of the obligation of a government to consult on legislation. So, in that regard, it was a very strong victory. He also indicated that while there may be times when there are occupations that can have their right to strike modified or reduced in some way, there needs to be a process put in place that allows the workers to bring collective bargaining to a conclusion, and he referred to binding arbitration or some other such mechanism. He also stated very clearly that, in his opinion, the right to strike is protected by section 2d of the charter. He did it in a way that identified three legs in a stool – the right to join a union, which is protected by the charter and there’s case precedence around that, most notably a case called Dunmore; there’s the right to engage in free collective bargaining, which has been enshrined under the charter in a B.C. health services case; and Justice Ball said the third leg in the stool which makes those other two meaningful is that workers have a right to strike protected by the charter. He said unless you have all three of them you, don’t have a stool. It will fall over. So, he made that bold declaration. It’s consistent with other legislation and that is really one of the primary reasons why the provincial government announced that they needed to challenge that decision because they weren’t comfortable that Justice Ball had declared the right to strike as a charter-protected right.
CTV News: Is the SFL opposed to essential services as a concept or do you just disagree with the government’s approach?
Larry Hubich: We’re supportive of the process that’s been adopted by the International Labour Organization, which is a body of the United Nations. It identifies that there are occupations where the right to strike can be curtailed, but that it must meet a Section 1 threshold under the charter. There’s a lot of similarities between international human rights and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom. Section 1 is that it’s in the interest of public safety and for the benefit of society, and that if you’re going to curtail someone’s right and actually infringe on their charter-protected right, that there’s reasons why it’s justifiable in a free and democratic society. There are people in Saskatchewan who have freely given up their right to strike and we have examples of that and have had examples of that for a lot of years that the government could have gone to, and that’s firefighters in the province of Saskatchewan. There’s a piece of legislation, called the Platoons Act, which was just swept into the government’s new labour law, and it governs the hours of work of firefighters. As well, there’s a provision in the Platoons Act that says if a union, in their constitution, states that they will not exercise their right to strike, that in exchange for that, they have access to binding arbitration in the event that their collective bargaining gets to an impasse or a dispute. That’s a way of protecting and respecting that workers have a constitutional right to strike, ensuring public safety and making sure that there’s a mechanism that allows collective bargaining to be brought to a conclusion by a union in the event that there’s an impasse, without having to go to a strike. The Federation of Labour and our affiliates are supportive of ensuring that public safety is protected and respected, and that in very limited instances, that includes the provision of protocols that ensure emergency services and those types of services are protected for the public because we are the public as well. While we’re also the people who provide those services, we’re also part of the public who actually relies on the services that our own members provide. Firefighters have houses too, and they certainly wouldn’t want a house to burn down because they were on the picket line. So, that same criteria applies to all of the occupations that are in those very sensitive areas where life and limb is actually impacted or there’s a potential impact if workers exercise their constitutional right to withdraw their services. So, in that regard, it’s reasonable to have a process that says, you know what, we know you have a right to strike; we know it’s protected by the charter, but because if you don’t do your job that life and limb is compromised, that we’re going to put in another mechanism that allows you to bring collective bargaining to a conclusion. That’s when the right to strike under the charter can be infringed or interfered with, and that’s a Section 1 argument under the charter. If you look at Saskatchewan’s essential services law, Bill 5, the scope and breadth of the legislation is broad and far-reaching. That was another criticism that Justice Ball had. He said it was the huge overreach. They not only describe one description of what constitutes work that would be classified as essential, but there are four – the courts, life and limb, building and equipment and there’s a fourth description. The ILO’s description says it’s life and limb and that’s what constitutes work that is contemplated as being that which you can put limits on the ability of workers to exercise their right to strike.
CTV News: Under Bill 5, the employers deem which workers are essential. Does that not take some of the leverage away from the union in the collective bargaining process if the employer gets to determine who can strike and who can’t?
Larry Hubich: That was one of the criticisms as well was that employers were given the ability to determine and if there was no agreement, then whatever the employer said was go. There was instances where the Regina hospital laundry services – and don’t get me wrong, it’s important to make sure that the bedding and the laundry in the hospital is clean – 124 of 125 workers were deemed essential by the employer. Well, you know what? Maybe the job is really important and maybe the job is really critical, but 124 out of 125 workers aren’t need to ensure that the very minimum basic gets done to ensure public safety. The other thing is that, in other jurisdictions where there is someone who’s been designated, it’s not all of their duties; it’s the core duties that make that work essential. For instance, administering cardio pulmonary resuscitation, CPR, that’s pretty critical, right? But doing the paperwork after the saving a life has been done to actually document what you did, that’s not so important to ensuring that someone doesn’t die on the spot. So, in terms of determining what constitutes a real essential task, those kinds of things need to be worked out. And, you’re correct, the legislation that was struck down put all of the ability of that designation and determination in the hands of the employer and didn’t provide for any kind of reasonable mechanism to dispute the employers’ declaration that this work is essential. There were numerous examples of people who, by everyone’s description wouldn’t be classified as being work that is essential, were being designated by the employer. The reason was because they rendered the ability of the union to actually put pressure on them at the bargaining table meaningless. They couldn’t bring bargaining to a conclusion.
CTV News: How would you describe the relationship between the unions and the Saskatchewan government this year? Is it improving or deteriorating?
Larry Hubich: I think that there’s been an improvement over the past year, and I think that’s attributable to the current minister. It’s also attributable to a genuine desire -- that’s always been there, by the way – from the labour movement to work with the government of the day, whoever that might be. It’s not necessary, from our point of view, for a government to attack one segment of society in order to appease another segment of society, and that appears to be the ideology of Stephen Harper. It doesn’t do anyone any good for that to happen, and there’s been a genuine effort, I think, on the part of minister (Don) Morgan to engage in real dialogue with the labour movement. Certainly, there’s areas where could improve. We don’t agree on everything, but at least there’s an opportunity for us to sit down and have a chat and talk about things that are important. So, I think in that regard, the relationship is less strained than it was prior to him becoming the minister of labour.
CTV News: But doesn’t the court battle over essential services put some strain on the relationship?
Larry Hubich: I don’t think so. I understand why the government is doing what they’re doing. There’s an option that they could pursue. It would be my preference if they pursued that other option, but I don’t harbor any animosity towards individuals in the government for the decision to appeal the legislation. I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. I do, though, think that there needs to be a little bit more effort to focus on working cooperatively with all of the segments of our society, as opposed to basing decisions on pure ideology. I think that’s when we don’t get good public policy – when ideology trumps common sense. I think we’re seeing that federally right now. I think we’re seeing ideology trumping common sense, and it’s not good for Canada. So, I’m encouraged that there doesn’t appear to be, at least on the surface, that kind of an aggressive posture in Saskatchewan.
CTV News: You mentioned that there have been some layoffs in the potash sector in particular. The government brought in Irish workers to address the labour shortage. What do you think about that plan, given that some of those workers were laid off and there are Saskatchewan workers who are without work now?
Larry Hubich: I’m certainly not opposed to a strong and appropriate immigration policy. I think that having an immigration policy that encourages citizens from other parts of the world to come here and become Canadian citizens and Saskatchewan citizens and contribute to our society is a good thing. I think a mosaic of cultures in a country is really a positive thing. As a matter of fact, except for the First Nations people who were here, we’re all immigrants. My grandparents immigrated to Canada from Austria. A couple of my grandparents were born here, but some of them actually were born in Austria, so I’m a third-generation Canadian. That’s not very many generations of Canadian because they came here in the late 1800s, early 1900s to settle in Canada. So, I think there’s a value, but we’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of that growing demographic of aboriginal workers. There’s a great resource there and it would be really a positive thing for us to ensure we spend as much time energy and resources developing employment and provided educational opportunities for citizens who are already here to assume the work that’s available. Certainly, sometimes you have to go outside to find workers, but I saw a show last night on the news about migrant workers being recruited from China, and there appears to be some pretty serious exploitation, like workers having to pay thousands of dollars to come and work in a job in Canada, and then to be paid only a fraction of what the going rate is. So, there appears to be a deliberate attempt at the national level, I think, by the federal government, including Mr. Harper and (Jason) Kenney, to provide a cheap pool of labour, primarily in the resource sector, but elsewhere, and we’re seeing it in some of the other sectors. They’ve actually amended the temporary foreign worker provisions of the Canadian laws that allow employers to pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than the average rate for the job in the sector -- that’s a race to the bottom. So, in terms of an immigration policy, we’re supportive of one, but it needs to be one that puts the rights of workers at the forefront, ensures that no one is being exploited, and has a complementary strategy around ensuring that the domestic workforce, including aboriginal workers, have opportunities in many of these jobs. Let’s train some people here in Saskatchewan as opposed to recruiting people who are already trained from other jurisdictions.
CTV News: What does 2013 hold for the labour movement in Saskatchewan?
Larry Hubich: I guess we’ll see. Certainly, there’s lots of bargaining coming up. There are a number of collective agreements in the health care sector that are coming due. Some of those people have been affected in the past by essential services. We will see what happens with the Court of Appeal. We have some challenges in the very early part of the year to analyze the impact of the government’s new Saskatchewan Employment Act and to do an analysis of what kind of changes are being contemplated there. We’re also swimming in a big sea here in Saskatchewan with what’s going on in Canada. What happens in other jurisdictions impacts what’s happening here and vice-versa. But I think that the working men and women in this province are flexible and they’re dynamic and have a great work ethic. They also respect the right to engage in discussions with their employer about the terms and conditions of their employment. I don’t see the appetite for that diminishing in any way, shape or form because in an economy that is chugging along like ours is, we’ve got to make sure that there’s real vehicles that allow workers to have a meaningful voice in the workplace. So, I think there’s going to be lots of work for us to do and it’s got the potential to be a good year, just so as long as I said earlier, we don’t allow ideology to trump good common sense.