The new government of Saskatchewan seems determined to walk the labour relations path trodden in the past by right-of-centre parties in Ontario and British Columbia. The province’s unions were already preparing to do battle over changes to the Trade Union Act (Bill 6) and the Public Service Essential Services Act (Bill 5) when Premier Brad Wall fired the chair and both vice-chairs of the Labour Relations Board.
The political tactics of both Mike Harris and Gordon Campbell were to strike hard, strike fast and keep their opponents off balance. In both cases, they numbered trade unions among their opponents. Strike they did, and their provinces reaped the whirlwind: Days of Action, political strikes in the public service, increased militancy and polarization. But, despite the best efforts of a united union movement, both leaders won second majority governments. (So much for the ‘spectre’ haunting Canada.)
Partisanship aside, the firing of the entire full-time contingent of the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board is a dangerous precedent. What the government of Saskatchewan has done is wrong for three reasons. It is dangerous public policy, it is contrary to our democratic traditions and it is very likely illegal. The first is something that a government is free to pursue for its own reasons. The other two are not.
A government spokesperson was quoted in the Regina Leader-Post as saying the terminations were routine. They are not. Unlike the American system where top bureaucrats have political allegiances and know their terms will end if the administration does, Canadian deputy ministers are neutral and institute the policies of the government, regardless of stripe. For quasi-judicial bodies like the LRB, who interpret the law and do not administer policy, the level of independence should be even higher. The chair of the labour relations board is not a political plum and should not be treated as such.
There was no claim made of bias on the part of the government, but the allegation has been made by Wall in the past and the implication is clearly there. If the rulings of the Board had been partial, they could have been challenged and overturned by a higher court, though the threshold is admittedly not trivial. What this action does is suggest that the former board was biased in favour of unions and that the new one will “get even” by favouring management.
In 1996, Mike Harris fired three vice-chairs of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The justification was cost savings, as the province intended to amalgamate a number of boards. The Court of Appeal in 1998 declared the terminations null and void, saying: “[T]he Ontario Labour Relations Board in its quasi-judicial functions must of necessity maintain a public perception of independence from government if the public is to have any respect for its decisions. The image of independence is undermined when government commitments to fixed appointments are breached.”
In that case, the court declined to reinstate the vice-chairs as the two remaining terms had only a short time left. In this situation, however, one of the vice-chairs has four years left in her term.
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