Saskatchewan: A beachhead of labour law reform?

May 3, 2013

Sweeping changes to Saskatchewan’s labour relations and employment standards legislation are on the verge of being passed. Bill 85, the Saskatchewan Employment Act, will dramatically transform the laws governing trade unions and industrial relations in the province. The Saskatchewan Party government, led by Premier Brad Wall, insists that the changes will simply modernize and simplify a dozen pieces of existing legislation into a single, omnibus employment act. But workers and trade unions are justified in thinking otherwise. In 1998, Saskatchewan’s current Minister of the Economy, Bill Boyd, unsuccessfully attempted to pass Bill 218, “An Act respecting the Right to Work (RTW) in the Province of Saskatchewan”, while the Sask Party was in opposition. In fact, debates over right-to-work style reforms and union financial transparency have already been contested in Saskatchewan as Bill 85 developed. But why is Saskatchewan so important in the national context?

As the birthplace of public healthcare and the country’s first Bill of Rights, Saskatchewan has produced some of the most progressive legislation in Canada. With the passage of the Trade Union Act in 1944, the province became the first jurisdiction to grant public sector employees the right to unionize. According to Bob Sass, a leading architect of Saskatchewan’s modern health and safety legislation, the Act was seen as a “beacon” for labour unions elsewhere in Canada. Indeed, Saskatchewan has served as a beachhead for groundbreaking developments in industrial relations legislation and practice.

The historic Trade Union Act has been ignominiously reduced to Section 6 of the SEA, a document that channels over 900 pages of legislation into one, 184 page document. Supposedly the SEA was crafted in a four-month period between July and December of 2012, but rumours suggest that the legislation was drafted well before government consultations commenced in May of 2012. Premier Wall insists that the legislation will pass before summer, despite protest from trade unions and members of the public. The Sask Party has singled out and attacked organized labour, and their labour reforms will be remembered as the defining characteristic of Wall’s government.

Only months after winning the 2007 provincial election, the Saskatchewan Party introduced a series of changes to labour legislation, the most important of which was Bill 5 (Public Service Essential Services Act) and Bill 6 (Trade Union Amendment Act). Bill 5 provided public sector employers the power to deem certain services as essential, with no recourse for appeal by unions or employees. Workers in these categories cannot withhold their labour during a strike. Bill 6, meanwhile, ended the card check certification process and granted employers the right to communicate facts and opinions to workers during union campaigns. The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour quickly launched an appeal. In February of 2012, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Denis Ball overturned Bill 5, but dismissed the SFL’s appeal against Bill 6. With regards to the PSESA, Ball’s conclusion was critical: that workers have a constitutional right to strike in order to bargaining collectively. The government appealed Ball’s ruling less than a month later.

Brad Wall’s “open for business” attitude is gazed upon with envious eyes across the country. After all, Saskatchewan’s economy has continued to grow despite the global economic slump. Some estimates even suggest that it will lead the country in wage growth throughout 2013. As the debate over Bill 85 draws to a close, it’s important for trade unions and workers to examine how Saskatchewan might serve as an example for reform in other jurisdictions. For Tim Hudak, the leader of Ontario’s PCs, Saskatchewan represents a beacon for economic and regulatory changes.

In 2011, the Ontario Tories released their white paper on labour law reform, “Paths to Prosperity: Flexible Labour Markets”. Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak has used the paper as a foundation for his campaign to introduce right-to-work legislation, amongst other changes. Modernizing labour laws and workplace regulations, Hudak insists, will provide a cure for the economic malaise facing Ontario, particularly in  its ailing manufacturing sector. As the report reads: “British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have agreed to tear down rigid labour and regulatory barriers in a bid to create the most open and competitive economies in the country. So far, they are succeeding”.

It’s worth noting that the Sask Party backed away from challenging the dues check-off issue. Even before Bill 85, Don Morgan made it clear that the government was not going to embark on right-to-work style legislation, remarking that challenging the Rand Formula convention would likely end up at the Supreme Court – a battle he feared the government might lose. It is also the case that public opinion, trade unions, and even business lobby groups are opposed to challenging the dues check-off question. Indeed, Saskatchewan has already served as a litmus test for right-to-work.   

Whether or not right-wing politicians will continue to draw inspiration from Saskatchewan on how to transform labour legislation remains to be seen. But the province has shown that public support for extreme anti-union measures, like right-to-work, is not as secure as business groups and their political allies anticipated. How the SEA will affect trade union influence and collective bargaining is also uncertain. And, unlike Hudak, Wall’s political strategy includes making progressive changes like indexing minimum wage to inflation and introducing stiffer penalties for health and safety violations. Nevertheless, the outcome of a comprehensive piece of employment standards legislation will be a useful test for both labour organizations and businesses elsewhere in Canada.

Another historical moment in Saskatchewan arrived on April 26, 2013, when the Court of Appeal overturned Justice Ball’s 2012 ruling. The court decided that the PSESA is constitutionally valid, and upheld the government’s strict regulations on the right of public sector workers to strike. The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour now has sixty days to apply for an appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada. Depending on how this struggle progresses, Saskatchewan might serve as a beachhead for critical developments in labour legislation and the rights of workers to strike.

Andrew Stevens is a faculty member at the University of Regina and co-editor of