Appeal court upholds Sask. labour law changes

Saskatchewan's highest court has upheld two key pieces of the provincial government's labour legislation.
Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, says provincial labour laws still need changes despite court ruling upholding controversial legislation. (CBC)

Saskatchewan's highest court has upheld two key pieces of the provincial government's labour legislation.

On Friday, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled that both the province's Essential Services Act and its changes to the Trade Union Act are constitutional.

The decision is a crushing blow to the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, which had sought to strike down both pieces of legislation.

In February, 2012, Regina Queen's Bench Justice Dennis Ball ruled Bill 5, the essential services law, was of no force or effect because labour groups hadn't been property consulted.

The law limits the number of public sector workers — such as health care workers and snowplow drivers — who can strike and sets out a process to determine which workers are covered. 

'The current essential services law is flawed and needs to be fixed.'—SFL President Larry Hubich

The province says it helps ensure public safety in the event of strike, but the SFL says it curtails workers' rights in a way that violates the Constitution.

Having the act struck down in 2012 was a big win for labour unions, perhaps the most significant since the Saskatchewan Party government took office and began changing the landscape of labour-management relations. 

In his written decision, Justice Robert Richards said on the Essential Service Act question, the government was right and the unions were wrong. The other four judges hearing the case agreed.

"The province’s appeal with respect to the Essential Services Act must be allowed," Richards said in the decision. "In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of association does not comprehend the right to strike. Its decisions on this point have never been overturned."

The SFL had also appealed the lower court's decision to uphold another piece of legislation, Bill 6, which includes changes to the Trade Union Act that could make it tougher for workers to form unions.

The changes include a secret ballot to form unions — rather than automatic certification when more than 50 per cent of workers sign union cards — plus a higher threshold of workers needed to prompt a certification vote. 

The new law also gave managers more freedom to talk to employees during union drives.

Richards said the original decision upholding the Trade Union Act amendment was correct and the SFL's appeal was dismissed.

Court battle waged for years

The original laws were passed five years ago and the court battle has been going on since.

Dozens of unions and groups representing employers were involved in the court case.

Although some labour leaders were expressing dismay over the ruling, SFL president Larry Hubich said it should not be seen as a loss for workers.

Hubich said he still believes the essential services law needs to be amended and said the government agrees.

"I think that there is an acknowledgment on the part of the government notwithstanding this current decision by the Court of Appeal that the current essential services law is flawed and needs to be fixed," he said.

Don Morgan, the province's minister of labour relations, said he'll be listening to Hubich, and others, before any changes are made.

"I don't know, at the end of the day, if we'll have something that everyone will agree on," Morgan said Friday, "But we want to have as much input as we possibly can."

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour could ask the Supreme Court of Canada to look at the case. It has 60 days in which to apply to the court for leave to appeal. Hubich says it will take time to make that decision.