Saskatchewan's NDP government, which likes to consider itself on the cutting edge of Canada’s progressive labor legislation, found itself in court last week in Regina faced with the embarrassing complaint that it is not living up to its own Labor Standards Act. The charges were filed by the 14,500-member Saskatchewan Government Employees Union (SGEU), a brooding, fractious organization still bristling over a month-long strike last year that was declared illegal because the number of those who voted to strike did not equal 50 per cent of the union membership, as required by the Trade Union Act. The sympathetic socialist government amended that act in this spring’s legislative session so that only 50 per cent of those who vote must favor a strike to make it legal. But Larry Brown, the SGEU’s chief executive officer, now claims that workers at six correctional camps are owed overtime pay dating back to 1977.
If the provincial court, which last week set over hearing the government’s plea until June 19, agrees and hands the tab to government, some estimate the back pay could reach $1.8 million for 80 workers, many of whom have long since migrated to other occupations. To complicate the issue even further, it is the province’s attorney-general’s department that is overseeing prosecution of the social services department on behalf of the union. The wrangle came to a head in April when 30 camp workers walked off the job to protest the government’s refusal to pay overtime. That led to a strike, closing two of the minimumsecurity work camps and forcing four others to limp along under management personnel. The union claims that since camp workers spend 24 hours a day in eight-day stretches in the camp, anything more than 10 hours a day should be considered overtime, according to the Labor Standards Act. But the government argues that the $20 a day in camp differential paid the staff covers the extra hours. The issue was referred to the Labor Standards Board, which did an audit of hours worked and ruled that $219,473 in overtime pay was owed since a new contract went into effect last July. That could mean a back pay cheque for some workers of $9,600, but the union still insists its bill be paid in full.
Cast in doubt by the dispute has been the future of the camps, which Social Services Minister Dwain Lingenfelter believes offer an effective alternative to jail for first-time offenders. “I hope the camps will still be viable once this has finally been settled,” says Lingenfelter. “But we may be forced to double the staff to get away from long stretches of sleeping over in camp with the inmates.” There was a glimmer of hope by week’s end when both sides were again talking to a conciliator about bargaining on a contract for the future. Meanwhile, the courts still have to decide whether the government broke its own laws in the past.
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