By Denise Leduc
In advance of the provincial election in April, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL), representing over 500 union locals and 100,000 workers in Saskatchewan, has been running workshops throughout the province through an initiative called Project: Community School.
“In October of the past year, Canadians rejected the divisive and mean-spirited conservative government of Stephen Harper.” says Paige Kezima, community organizer with the SFL. “Canadians, including Saskatchewan citizens, said they want governments who care about, and act on issues that are important to everyone.”
“We think it’s time we had a government in Saskatchewan that cared as much about all of the citizens of the province as they do about their corporate backers and wealthy donors.”
Enter Project: Community School, a day-long training for labour and community activists, which “offers strategies and tactics on how to run effective campaigns and create positive change from the ground up,” says Kezima.
“Basic community organizing is at its core. We hope that participants from the schools will take these skills and apply them to upcoming provincial election campaigns.”
Project: Community was launched by the SFL at the federation’s annual convention in 2014 as a grassroots effort to affect positive change in the province. The focus includes solidarity, education, and voter engagement. The latest training sessions are an extension of Project: Community in the lead up to the election.
Kezima says, “ We tackle both the how and the why of community organizing. It is our hope that people take the materials provided and use it as a resource when planning and executing their own actions.”
Recently, I took part in the Moose Jaw school to discuss the issues facing people in Saskatchewan. Despite the many economic and political challenges ahead, the overall mood at the event was hopeful.
The facilitators discussed a variety of strategies including communication, canvassing, and networking.
From a range of occupations, rural and urban locations, income levels, and generational backgrounds, everyone was concerned about the political direction in which the province is heading.
The participants in this workshop included members from SaskBuildingTrades, health care workers, CUPE members, educators, members of Unifor and even two local NDP candidates.
While attendees were in agreement that there needs to be change in the province, Brad Wall seems to be popular across Saskatchewan, even amongst unionized workers. While Saskatchewan residents do not like many of the SaskParty’s policies, many still find the premier appealing.
While the SFL is a non-partisan organization, the federation claims that if a government – any government – is not doing what is best for citizens, it is labour’s job is to act upon it.
Still, there is no hiding the SFL’s frustration towards Premier Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party’s litany of anti-labour legislation since first coming to power in 2007. The most blatant example of this was proclamation of the government’s essential services legislation, Bill 5 – the Public Service Essential Services Act – in 2008.
In 2015 the Supreme Courts ruled against the Saskatchewan government, declaring sections of the legislation unconstitutional. The PSES Act was revised after some consultation with labour groups late last year. This was a massive victory for the SFL and unionized workers across Canada.
Kezima says, “The SaskParty government has changed labour standards and in doing so gives more power to employers while taking workers’ rights away.”
“With an endless appetite for privatization, not only are good jobs being threatened and exported out of the province, the basic services that Saskatchewan people are entitled to are in danger. In the community, we’ve seen record food bank usage, the second highest tuition fees in Canada, and the fastest growing number in the country of people receiving Employment Insurance benefits.”
The SFL believes the majority of Saskatchewan people are concerned about issues like the rising cost of living, the decline in the quality of health and seniors care, education, and privatization. They will be focusing on these issues in their upcoming provincial election campaign.
Kezima continues, “We are building ‘community teams’ throughout the province that will consist of folks who are passionate about the issues that affect them and want to work towards positive change in the province.”
She says, “Our focus is on the provincial election, and we have a strong ground game that we will be implementing. We’ll be doing things to engage voters like planning and executing canvasses, tabling, doing leaflet drops, and petitioning. There will be additional training offered to the teams in early March.”
The school was effective for networking with other concerned citizens. It was also helpful to hear about the struggles that others are facing in Saskatchewan, like the skyrocketing price of water in Regina, despite the cost savings promised by a new P3 waste water treatment facility.
Many participants voiced frustration over the rising cost of living including food and utilities, as these basic necessities are becoming harder for ordinary citizens to afford.
This comes on the tail of a record resource-fuelled boom, so prices are going up as thousands of Saskatchewan workers lose their jobs. Another major concern is the Sask Party’s continuing desire to privatize more industries, including liquor sales and food services in the prisons. There is concern around the new P3 schools proposal, and snow removal on the multi-billion dollar highway bypass being constructed around Regina.
With privatization, the province loses well-paying jobs and revenue from profitable services like liquor retail.
Project: Community School focused on discussing the issues, developing strategies to engage voters and showing the public there is another option besides more of Brad Wall. The SFL wants a provincial government that will listen to and act in the interest of labour and all citizens of Saskatchewan. Ten years of SaskParty rule has shown labour that this government is driven by ideology, not consultation with the people.