Union members sing Solidarity Forever while Labour Minister Rob Norris speaks at the podium. ((Niall McKenna/CBC))

Union members gave Saskatchewan's labour minister a frosty — and noisy — reception at a conference on Thursday.

It's traditional for the minister to make a speech at the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour's annual meeting.

However, when Rob Norris took to the podium Thursday to explain his controversial new labour laws, there was a strong reaction from people in the crowd.

As Norris spoke, there were catcalls and boos and hundreds moved to the back of the room. Once there, they loudly began to sing the traditional union anthem, Solidarity Forever.

Since forming government, the Saskatchewan Party has passed two landmark pieces of legislation that affect unions — with Norris being the point man on both.

One was essential services legislation, which could allow the government to force striking public sector workers back on the job. The other law changed the way unions organize and operate in the workplace. It ends the practice of automatic union certification in cases where more than 50 per cent of workers sign union cards. Now, a secret-ballot vote is required no matter how many people sign cards.

The government said it was trying to bring more balance between the rights of workers and the rights of employers.

Union members have said the government is simply anti-union and is trying to strip people of their rights on the job.

On Thursday, Norris told the Regina crowd that the new laws would promote public safety and freedom and democracy in the workplace. He got booed for that.  

"It's fair to say we simply have a difference of opinion," he said.

A few minutes later, much of the Regina crowd had left their seats and began singing at the back of the conference room. Norris continued to deliver his speech.

Later, SFL president Larry Hubich defended the workers' reaction to Norris.

"This was not orchestrated by anyone," he said. "It was spontaneous."

Norris later said that despite the reaction at the conference, the government is getting mostly good reviews from Saskatchewan workers for cutting taxes and planning to rebuild roads and buildings.