By Andrew Stevens
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 Saskatchewan 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, a prairie province with just over a million residents, 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. Modeled on the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) in the United States, the Trade Union Act represented a pioneering change in Saskatchewan’s economic and labour relations landscape. In the words of 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. For this reason trade unions and workers outside the province should pay attention to developments currently unfolding in Saskatchewan.
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