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Saskatchewan Amends Essential Services Law, Giving Employees Their Right To Strike

10/15/2015 06:14 EDT | Updated 10/15/2015 06:59 EDT
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REGINA — Saskatchewan has fixed an essential services law that the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in a case with potential implications across the country.

Labour Minister Don Morgan has introduced amendments to the province's employment act which he says comply with the high court's ruling affirming the right to strike as constitutionally protected.

"We will have a piece of legislation, when it passes, that we believe will continue to provide safety and security for the citizens of the province. We also believe that it will provide a process to get a settlement where a union's right to strike isn't limited,'' Morgan said Thursday at the legislature in Regina.

In January, the Supreme Court struck down the law that prevented some public-sector employees from striking. The court also gave Saskatchewan one year to enact new legislation and made clear that any new law had to be fair to workers.

Under the old law, essential services were defined as a service to prevent a danger to life, health or safety, serious environmental damage, the destruction or serious deterioration of machinery, equipment or premises, and disruption of the courts.

The amendments remove the definition altogether and allow the parties involved to determine what duties must be maintained.

The changes also remove a controversial part of the old law which said that the government could choose who was an essential worker if the two sides couldn't agree. A tribunal will now decide what services are essential if the two sides can't agree.

Morgan says the changes were made in consultation with labour groups.

Barbara Cape is president of the Service Employees' International Union-West, which has about 100,000 members working for employers who include school boards, home-care agencies, hospitals, emergency services, social services and municipalities.

Cape said the amendments appear to improve things, but "the devil is in the details.''

"The proof will absolutely be in how it's implemented, how it's used, how it's interpreted,'' she said from Saskatoon.

Tracey Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, said the changes need more analysis.

"We feel it's definitely a step forward,'' said Zambory, "But SUN will absolutely need time to sit down and review, with our legal counsel, the bill's contents and what the implications are going to be to our members.''

The essential services legislation was introduced shortly after the Saskatchewan Party first won power in 2007. Court challenges launched by labour groups in 2008 went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Morgan acknowledged it was a long process.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I'd have rather not gone down that road. We would have been better off if we could have found another alternative earlier. We didn't, we couldn't, and this is where we're at now.''

Morgan suggested the Saskatchewan model is likely to be looked at by other jurisdictions.

Nova Scotia enacted its own essential services legislation for health-care workers in April 2014, joining Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia with such laws. Last April, an Alberta court struck down two provincial labour laws that took away the right to strike for thousands of public-sector workers.

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