Fifty years ago, Saskatchewan changed Canadian history. Pushed by labour, farmer and community groups, on July 1, 1962, the provincial government introduced the first universal health coverage program in North America.
The move was opposed by much of the business community and doctors withdrew their services for 23 days in a failed bid to force the government to back down. Four years later, the federal government took the “Saskatchewan health model” to the rest of the country, recognizing the importance of providing this social protection to all Canadians. Five decades later, many Canadians judge medicare to be the single most important program that makes this country better than the U.S. and tens of millions of Americans wish they had their own “Saskatchewan model”. Unfortunately, now Saskatchewan is making waves for quite a different reason. The province has become the main Canadian battleground for those who want to turn the clock back on workers’ rights.
In May, the Saskatchewan Party unveiled a labour consultation paper that includes a proposal to lengthen the work week and undermine public holidays. The planned overhaul of the province’s labour regulations would also undercut unions’ ability to engage politically and burden labour organizations with red tape. It may also make it possible for employers to apply to the Labour Relations Board to decertify a union and allow members to opt out of paying union dues.
Several of these proposals would probably not survive a Supreme Court challenge. That doesn’t matter to the business ideologues. They are ecstatic that a sitting government would propose such changes.
In a recent piece titled “Saskawisconsin” Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran compared the government’s proposed changes to recent Wisconsin reforms pushed by Governor Scott Walker. “Brad Wall may not be Canada’s Scott Walker, but his Saskatchewan Party government last month issued a ‘consultation paper’ on labour legislation that hints at some reforms for Saskatchewan that reflect the Wisconsin reforms.”
Corcoran is particularly happy that “Saskatchewan is shaking one of the pillars of union power in Canada”, namely the 65-year-old Supreme Court decision that all individuals who benefit from a collective agreement have to pay union dues. Business ideologues are ramping up their challenge to the “Rand formula” and the whole idea of collective bargaining.
In conclusion Corcoran writes, “Canada could use a little Saskawisconsin.” But, he fails to see that there are a number of areas where Saskatchewan is currently lagging behind.
At $9.50 an hour, Saskatchewan has Canada’s lowest minimum wage after Alberta ($9.40). The province is one of the few where it is possible to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage and where women have no pay equity protection. Saskatchewan is now the hardest place to unionize. To even qualify for a vote, workers need to gather more signed cards (45 per cent) than any other province except BC (also 45 per cent) and employers have been given a much greater latitude to intimidate workers. The Saskatchewan Party also adopted draconian essential services legislation that the courts found to illegally restrict public sector strikes.
The 40-hour work week, paid holidays, freedom of assembly and collective bargaining are, much like universal health care, important rights and freedoms. They are essential social gains made by working people over decades to ensure that everyone gets the necessary support to live decently in this country.
During this moment of relative prosperity in the province, Saskatchewan is perfectly placed to once again lead the way towards greater equality for families, youth, seniors and all members of our communities. Rather than moving backwards, this overhauling of labour legislation should be a moment to advance workers’ rights. How about making Saskatchewan the first province to bring its minimum wage up to the poverty line and to tie it to a cost of living allowance?
Or why not make Saskatchewan the first jurisdiction in North America to reduce the work week to 35 hours?
Short-sighted people will say “this can’t be done, business won’t survive”. But, those same people argued that universal health coverage wasn’t feasible. On the 50th anniversary of medicare, Canadians across the country are thanking Saskatchewan for proving otherwise.
Coles is president, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.