12/04/2012 03:21 EST | Updated 02/03/2013 05:12 EST

Saskatchewan indexes minimum wage, changes union rules in labour law overhaul

REGINA - The Saskatchewan government is indexing the minimum wage and changing the rules for lockouts or strikes.

The changes introduced Tuesday are part of the new Saskatchewan Employment Act, which consolidates 12 workplace-related pieces of legislation into one omnibus bill.

Labour Minister Don Morgan said he doesn't expect to make business groups or unions completely happy.

"They're all going to find some things that they like and some things that they don't like," Morgan said at a news conference at the legislature.

"But I think what we've done is we've found some things that are fair."

Among other things, the legislation says people with disabilities can't be paid a lower minimum wage. The legislation allows for people to work either five eight-hour days a week or four 10-hour days a week. The qualifying period for maternity, parental and adoption leave would lower to 13 weeks from 20 weeks.

On the labour relations front, the legislation says if a contract can't be reached, the parties must take a 14-day cooling off period before a strike or lockout can happen.

Unions can still fine members who cross picket lines, but now they'll have to get a court order to collect.

"Under the existing method what took place was the union would determine what the penalty should be, would send a notice to the employer, the full sum that they choose was taken off the employee's paycheque," said Morgan.

"We think that matter should be determined by somebody independent from the process rather than solely by the union."

Unions and business groups appeared cautiously optimistic about the extensive overhaul of labour laws.

"There's a couple of things that we're encouraged by," said Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour.

"We're supportive of an indexing formula for minimum wage. We think that that's a good thing. There are a couple of other things that we think are good, for instance, providing that employers can't pay disabled workers less than minimum wage, so there are some positives in the legislation."

But Hubich said there is some concern over a rule that would force unions to provide audited financial statements to members. He said unions already do that and it would only be fair if it applied to all professional organizations.

Hubich also liked that the government decided not to go down the path of letting workers opt out of paying union dues.

The government had floated the idea of letting workers opt out of paying union dues, but it likely didn't have a choice in the final decision. The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the right of unions to collect dues and said people can only opt out on religious grounds.

Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, liked the proposed changes.

McLellan said the legislation gives employers and employees one place to look for all the rules and regulations.

"We've been calling for many years for a greater balance, that we want the pendulum to be even. We think this moves us further that way," said McLellan.

"At the end of this bill's passage, once the regulations, of course, are clearly seen, we think that Saskatchewan business is going to be very happy."

The legislation is expected to pass in the spring.

However, the bill does not yet include essential services legislation because a dispute over that law is before the Court of Appeal.

The essential services legislation, which was introduced in December 2007, stated employers and unions had to agree on which workers were so needed they could not walk off the job. But unions were outraged because the law also stated that if the two sides couldn't agree, employers could dictate who was essential.

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, representing about two dozen plaintiffs, challenged the law.

A Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled in February that the law goes too far and is unconstitutional. But Justice Dennis Ball upheld the principle of essential services and gave the government 12 months to fix the law.

Morgan has said the ruling broke new ground when it stated there is charter protection for the right to strike and the province appealed.

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard arguments in the case last week and has reserved its decision.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for the government has asked for an extension to the 12-month deadline imposed by Ball. If the extension is not granted, provincial officials acknowledge the essential services legislation would essentially die in February and would have to be reintroduced as an amendment to the Saskatchewan Employment Act in fall 2013.