Friday, October 19, 2012

On grassroots input

Saskatchewan's NDP has released a report on its labour and employment consultations. And between the 700 participants and the report's drafters, there are plenty of noteworthy suggestions and recommendations worth discussing.

Let's start with a few of the more detailed points.

On process, a couple of observations about the Sask Party's comparative consultation:
- People who do not belong to unions felt the government's approach excluded public comment by non-unionized workers, as they do not have formal representation.
- One speaker compared the limited time frame to a much broader timeframe for other public policy consultations, including the government's six-month consultation on reviewing the system for branding cattle.
 The latter point of course offers a specific point of reference as to how little interest the Sask Party has in listening to workers affected by changes to employment and labour law. But it's the former that may be more significant: even as the Wall government seeks to kneecap unions, it's also highlighting the need for organized labour by making it difficult for workers to have any voice on their own.
 - Sick time and vacation time should be standard for all workers, rather than solely for those with a collective agreement.
Lest there be any doubt, the Labour Standards Act does provide for vacation time, along with several different types of leave. But sick leave isn't included on the list - and there's plenty of merit to considering it among the benefits all workers should enjoy.
- The potential for school division employees to be given the same province-wide bargaining rights as teachers was raised. Employees including custodians and educational support staff are laid off during summer breaks and need the same protections as teachers.
Now, it may be noted that under the Education Act, 1995, teachers' collective bargaining is split between provincial and local matters under current law. But it's well worth pointing out that the provincial component is that related to salary and benefits - and with the Wall government having taken on unilateral authority to determine how Saskatchewan's education system will be funded, it makes sense to bargain the distribution of that funding at a provincial level as well.
- Several speakers called for a living wage, where the minimum wage is set based on what it would take to raise a family in dignity. They argued it would have a ripple effect for higher wages for all low-wage workers who make just above the minimum wage.
Which looks to nicely signal that the Sask Party's reactive changes to the minimum wage level leaves plenty of distance yet to go in ensuring sufficient wages for Saskatchewan workers.
- Allowing some workers the option of opting-out of paying union dues, as was suggested by the government's discussion paper, struck many speakers as unfair. They said the fairness of representation for all includes everyone paying their dues just as people pay their taxes for fair and equal treatment for government services.
Of course, Wall and his ilk might well agree with the comparison precisely for the purpose of attacking unions and public services alike. But it makes sense to compare the two and defend both, rather than allowing a message primarily directed against unions for now to undercut the basis for functional government in the longer term.

Which leads nicely to the more general themes within the NDP's recommendations. And aside from a brief note on the first one below, I can't say more other than that these concerns should be front and centre when the Sask Party unveils the legislation it's kept hidden since the beginning of its process:

The Sask. Party government should, in its new public consultation, emphasize a balance in workplace rights between workers and employers. [Ed. note - Though I would suggest that the balance has to include some recognition that the employer is inherently in a position of power, such that policy should be aimed at leveling the playing field rather than retreating from it.] If a policy is deemed to upset the balance, it should be scrapped.

The Sask. Party government should not be considering in its review the principles of the 40-hour work week, standard eight-hour work day, three-week vacation leave, and standard province-wide statutory holidays. There is a broad consensus in the province that these standards work for Saskatchewan.

The people of Saskatchewan believe current labour legislation is strong, fair and balanced. The Sask. Party government should work to educate the public about workplace rights so that more people understand the progress Saskatchewan has made to develop this balance over the past hundred years. 
Taken together, those recommendations pose an important challenge to Wall to either explain why any changes serve a purpose beyond merely giving corporate funders what they want, or stick with a system which by its own account is producing plenty of positive results. And I'll be rather curious to see how the Sask Party chooses to respond.

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