Public Values

Saskatchewan public servants fight back

Member activation results in grassroots action against Wall government.

Ish Theilheimer interviews Barbara Cape, president of SEIU-West, for Straight Goods News.by Ish Theilheimer

A political sea change in Saskatchewan is forcing public servants there to fight back. With the election, November 2007, of Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party, organized labour has had a war on its hands.

"Since 2007 we have seen the introduction of some very regressive pieces of labour legislation," said Barbara Cape, in a YouTube video interview for Straight Goods News. She is President of SEIU-West, a recently-formed amalgamation of SEIU locals in Saskatchewan.

"On the face of it they may sound appealing to the public, but quite frankly the government has declared war on trade unions in Saskatchewan."

She says four pieces of legislation are particularly troublesome. These include:

- the Public Services Essential Services Act, she says, is "probably the most appealing one to the public in Saskatchewan. The problem is men and women who work in health care in Saskatchewan have always ensured there were essential services in the event of a strike. We are being painted by this government as not caring for our patients, clients and residents. That is 100 percent not true. Health care workers in the province are a special breed of people who would never contemplate taking job action without ensuring that there was some safety for their patients, clients and residents.

- changes to the Trade Union Act. "Previously we had had card checks for organizing. And Saskatchewan had real good union density (proportion of workers that belong to unions) at 33 or 34 percent. With this legislation, not only do we have to have cards signed by our members, but then we have to go through a vote. The government has said a vote is democratic. Our argument has been a vote is democratic, but we use the democratic form of card-signing. People have the opportunity to make their choices in the privacy of their own home. There was no pressure. It was organizing, in the pu rest sense of the word.

- changes to the Construction and Trades Union Actthat "open the door quite widely" for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) to organize in the trades and in health care. Cape joins with most others in the labour movement in calling CLAC an "employer's union." She says the legislation "lowers the standards for working people across the province."

- the Trespass Act, which "says that nobody, no union, no organization shall be allowed to gather on Crown property without permission in the province of Saskatchewan. What that does is it takes away our right, as citizens of the province, to gather an assemble on our land, our Crown land. The penalties are quite stiff in all circumstances," $2,000 a day for individuals, $50,000 a day for unions.

"With this kind of legislation, they're pushing our members up against the wall," says Cape. "Health care workers are going to seeing some dark times ahead in Saskatchewan."

Barbara Cape, President of SEIU-West, describes the war on unions being waged by the Wall government in Saskatchewan:

Fightback campaigns

In response, her union has organized campaign such as on called "Essential 365 Days," in support of health care workers. Most recently has come the You've Got Mail campaign. "We marched to the Saskatchewan Party caucus office at the Government of Saskatchewan, and we delivered over 6,000 pieces of mail," said Cape. These were generated in 30 days from workers and concerned citizens. "That's signficant," she says. "It has had an effect. We've heard from the Minister of Health that he wants us to redouble our efforts at the bargaining table, and he is challenging us to get a deal sooner rather than later."

Cape says the Wall government has been clever in how it has marketed the changes it has introduced. "Initially when the legislation was introduced, on the face of it it seemed pretty innocuous, however when you read the legislation it has absolutely put our members' backs up. The way that it's written and the punitive nature of it, has really angered our rural members, our long-term care members, our acute care members, people are just shocked that our government, which is supposed to be leading our province, that this is a war they're willing to take on health care workers."

Wall was in Toronto for the launch of SEIU's Member Action Program (MAP), which she sees as "an extension of the kind of work we've been doing right now. Our members are about to see, with the response from the government of Saskatchewan, are already seeing the ability of government to respond to those 6,000 pieces of mail.

"All it took was a signature. You see the immediate action, and you want to go further. And I think our members are going to be really impressed by how quickly we can see some payoff for our efforts in the political realm. Because bargaining is no longer just about sitting at the bargaining table anymore, you need to have some other pieces of the agenda, and I think MAP's been helpful to that."

Ish Theilheimer has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since founding it in September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of PublicValues.ca.

Posted: July 02, 2009

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