The government of Saskatchewan has gone back to the drawing board and amended its 'essential services' legislation, a law that has generated controversy — especially among public sector trade unions — and much legal wrangling.

The first version of the law, which puts a limit on who is allowed to join a picket line during a labour dispute, was introduced shortly after the Saskatchewan Party won power in 2007.

Even though the legislation is still working through the courts, the province is proposing amendments.

The minister responsible, Don Morgan, said Wednesday the changes reflect how the government has become better at listening.

"I guess 'maturing' might be a fair word," he said. "We've spent some time and we've done some listening and we've done some consultation and we've heard what people have said."

skpic press release

The provincial government has introduced amendments to its essential services law. (CBC )

The Opposition NDP says if the government would have listened in the first place it would have saved people a lot of time and money.

According to the province a number of key changes have been proposed, including:

  • Requiring an essential services agreement to be negotiated when there is an impasse in bargaining a collective agreement.
  • Expanding the definition of “public employer” to include all employers that provide an essential public service.
  • Enabling disputes on the content of an employer’s essential services notice to be heard by an arbitrator or arbitration board.
  • Enabling the union to challenge all aspects of the employer’s essential services notice.
  • Providing a process to resolve a collective bargaining agreement where the level of essential services required would result in a strike or lockout being ineffective.

Morgan said the changes remove some of the existing law's most controversial elements.

"We wanted to make sure that it was balanced," he said. "That it wasn't a hammer that could be used by one side or the other so that one party would say, 'Well we're not going to bargain anymore.'"

SFL reaction is mixed

Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, was guarded in his reaction to the proposed changes saying some parts looked good while others were problematic.

“We’re certainly pleased that the government has made some improvements upon the previous law,” Hubich said in a news release Wednesday. "Unfortunately, it looks as though the government may have taken a step forward, only to take another step backward.”

According to Hubich, parts of the proposed changes may help negotiations between labour and manager go more smoothly.

However, he raised concerns about a change that "seems to open the door to expanding the scope [of the law] even further, to include people that work in private companies."

“We’ll need to spend some time examining the bill in detail," he concluded.