Essential services law leads to stalemate

Union accuses management of using Act as bargaining tool

For the first time since Saskatchewan enacted its Essential Services Act almost two years ago, the law has become a controversial issue in collective bargaining.

Negotiations between the unions representing 25,000 healthcare workers in Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Assn. of Health Organizations (SAHO), which bargains on behalf of the health regions, have reached a stalemate.

Now, the president of one of those unions, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), is publicly accusing SAHO of using the law to avoid negotiations.

Workers have been without a contract since March 2008, two months before the law was enacted. Tom Graham says since then SAHO has made little effort to bargain fairly. He says the two sides have had a “handful” of meetings over the past two years, but “we’ve only been in a room together part of one day” every month.

He says SAHO has been “emboldened” by the Act. Recently, the agency presented the union with its final offer. But Graham says workers don’t have the option to walk off the job because the agency can declare them “essential” and order them back.

“[The law] has given all of the power to the employer,” he says. “The Act is set up so the employer is better off not coming to an agreement. It’s really designed to undermine collective bargaining.”

But Graham says the union has no recourse. If it disagrees with SAHO over which jobs are “essential,” CUPE must appeal to the Labour Relations Board. He’s been told that can only happen once job action has started.

“We took a case there recently and they said, ‘No, you’re still in negotiation stage,’ which is quite bizarre since the healthcare workers have a strike vote,” he says.

Graham questions the necessity of the law to begin with. According to CUPE’s research, 96 per cent of agreements in the public sector over the past 20 years were settled without any kind of job action.

“It’s not as if everyone’s on strike here all of the time,” he says.

SAHO president and chief executive Susan Antosh says all but one province, Nova Scotia, have implemented similar laws as a public safeguard.

“Prior to the law coming in, the union had an unlimited right to strike,” she says. “So, in past labour disputes, they’ve pulled almost all of their staff, which puts the public in quite significant disadvantage to receiving the services they need.”

According to Antosh, the Essential Services Act and the negotiations are two distinct processes. While SAHO represents the health regions in collective bargaining, it has no legal obligation when it comes to the Act. It’s up to the union and each of those regions to determine which jobs are declared ‘essential’.

As for the accusations leveled by CUPE, Antosh says the unions didn’t indicate they were ready to bargain until months after the contract expired.

“We’ve bargained in good faith. We’ve made movement both on what we proposed and, in some cases, we’ve agreed to things they’ve proposed,” she says.

Last December, SAHO requested the help of a provincial conciliator when “it became clear we were very far apart.” Antosh says that during the process of conciliation, the union put forward proposals that increased in cost. At that point, she says SAHO decided to put forward its final offer.

CUPE’s Tom Graham says it’s unlikely the union will take any immediate job action. By his calculations, his union’s 12,600 members could face $25 million in fines if they walked off the job for one day.

“[The Act] was written in a manner where we’re looking for loopholes and there aren’t any,” he says.

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