A Saskatchewan law limiting the ability of public sector workers to go on strike has been ruled unconstitutional by a Queen's Bench judge, but the provincial government says it is still committed to having essential services legislation.
In a 132-page decision, released Monday, Regina Justice Dennis Ball said the Public Service Essential Services Act — also known as Bill 5 — infringes on workers' rights and is of "no force or effect."
However, a "declaration of invalidity" will be suspended for a year, Ball said.
"Obviously, we need to go through it several more times, but I can say to you we are pleased by the court's decision to protect working people's charter rights," Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, told reporters after Ball's decision was released.
The law, bitterly opposed by labour groups, was passed by the Saskatchewan Party government in 2008.
It sets out a process where some workers — such as nurses and snowplow drivers — can be declared essential and banned from going on strike.
No resolution process offered
The problem with Saskatchewan's law, Ball ruled, is that it doesn't give employees an adequate dispute resolution process where they can challenge which employees are designated as essential.
"Although the benefits that accrue from the statutory limitations on the rights to bargain collectively and to strike are significant, they are clearly outweighed by their deleterious effects on the employees affected," Ball said in the decision.
'We have 12 months in which to either amend the legislation or appeal the decision. We'll do one or the other or both.' —Justice Minister Don Morgan
Ball was also asked to look at Bill 6, amendments to the Trade Union Act, which ended the practice of automatic union certification in cases where a majority of employees sign union cards. Instead, a secret ballot vote is required to unionize a workplace.
The Trade Union Act amendments also raised the threshold percentage of workers needed to trigger a vote — to 45 per cent from 25 per cent.
However, Ball rejected arguments that the Trade Union Act amendments were unconstitutional.
During a trial last year, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and more than two dozen unions argued that the two laws, which were passed in 2008, infringe on the rights of people to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers.
Lawyers representing the government argued the legislation was reasonable and does not infringe on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
1st challenge in Canada
It's believed to be the first time in Canada an essential services law has been taken to court on a charter challenge.
Ball noted other provinces have essential services legislation, but Saskatchewan's is unique.
"No other essential services legislation in Canada comes close to prohibiting the right to strike as broadly, and as significantly, as the PSES Act," he said.
Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan said he believes the judge's decision upholds the principle of essential services.
"Snow removal on highways, hospital workers where surgeries are taking place — those are things that we will ensure will continue," Morgan said after the ruling came down.
While Ball declared the essential services law unconstitutional, the effect won't kick in for more than a year.
"We have 12 months in which to either amend the legislation or appeal the decision. We'll do one or the other or both," Morgan said.
The minister added that he is willing to meet with the province's labour groups to discuss ways to improve the essential services legislation.
"What we'd like do with organized labour is sit down and work with them and see what types of things can be resolved," Morgan said.
Morgan said he will also look at essential services laws in other provinces for ideas on what changes could be made.
Ball said he will meet with both sides to talk about what should happen next.