Gov’t seems to prefer labour wars

By Murray Mandryk, The Leader-Post October 4, 2011

One doesn’t have to be very politically insightful to recognize that organized labour does not like this Saskatchewan Party government.

Amidst the steady stream of partisan party advertisements in the run-up to the provincial election that must be called within the next week has been a steady stream of equally partisan-sounding union ads decrying everything from a lack of social workers to a secret Sask. Party privatization agenda in health care, highways and Crown corporations.

And lest anyone think this is just business – specifically, the business of a lobby group applying pressure to government – all one must do is tune into the blog-and twittersphere to see that it’s much more personal than that. Just go to Twitter where Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Larry Hubich simply cannot contain his resentment to the maximum 140 characters of a single tweet.

But however eager organized labour has been to engage Premier Brad Wall’s government, it should be noted that his Sask. Party administration seems equally eager to have this fight.

Critical to the Sask. Party in the upcoming election campaign (where voters don’t see a Dwain Lingenfelter-led NDP as a threat to Saskatchewan’s newfound economic well-being) is casting something else as the enemy. So it’s been unions that the Sask. Party has cast in the villain’s role, though it should be noted that public-sector unions have obliged by pulling crop adjusters off the job during last spring’s flooding and having the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU) president explain that weather disasters are an opportune time for a strike.

Sadly, lost in all this has been the fact that unions often have had legitimate beefs with the government and haven’t always expressed them in some self-serving manner.

In fact, on those occasions where unions have acted in a magnanimously co-operative way, they’ve pretty much received the same disdainful treatment. A case in point is the extended battle by SGEU members at the province’s cancer agency.

The cancer workers appear to be the last holdouts on the labour front, although this isn’t necessarily some grand political statement. In fact, this is one area where hostility between union and government seems minimal.

“This group isn’t like that,” said Kenton Emery, SGEU’s agreement administration advisor for these negotiations. While other negotiations might have gotten caught up in big “P” politics, “both sides (in the cancer worker labour dispute) didn’t want to go there.”

Nor has the union bargaining unit really given either management or the government any big reason for hostility. While voluntary overtime was withdrawn in June, rank-andfile union members asked that this tactic be stopped because of the undue stress it was putting on cancer patients, Emery said. Although the withdrawal had been conducted in a way that no patient would miss treatments, the negotiator said both sides decided: “You know, maybe we have to find a better way.”

That better way was a proposal for third-party arbitration that would more effectively solve the labour dispute while allowing the cancer agency to function with no disruptions. But Emery said the problem is that management negotiators haven’t received a mandate to proceed in this way, despite everyone’s eagerness to resolve the dispute in a more co-operative manner.

During the last year, there’s been a lot of talk from government supporters about greedy unions’ “entitlement” to the province’s prosperity – some of which has been driven by union hostility or questionable strategy.

But in the face of that, wouldn’t it make sense to want to reward those bargaining units that want to do things differently?

“We believe we have been bargaining differently, but where has it gotten us?” Emery asked. “One of the things I hear is we (unions) need to evolve. Well, I think we’ve done that, but we’ve gotten the exact same result.”

Sadly, one suspects that having an unpopular entity like organized labour as one of your most vocal critics isn’t much bothering the Wall government. Rather, one suspects it welcomes the confrontation as some supposed sign of how the new Saskatchewan is different from what it was under the NDP .

But if labour and management have a better way of settling disputes without ham-handed legislation or nasty strikes, shouldn’t that approach be rewarded?

That hasn’t happened in the cancer agency dispute.

Mandryk is the political columnist for the Leader-Post.

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