CANADA

A search for labor peace

DALE EISLER February 3 1986
CANADA

A search for labor peace

DALE EISLER February 3 1986

A search for labor peace

The document was a scant 10 pages long, but in the increasingly charged atmosphere of labor relations in Saskatchewan it was seen as a potential milestone. A report by conciliator Vincent Ready attempted to resolve a bitter 16-month contract dispute involving 12,000 members of the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union (SGEU), who have orchestrated a series of disruptive rotating strikes since last October. Premier Grant Devine embraced Ready’s proposal as a “framework for agreement,” but then issued a warning to the union: end the strikes by Monday at 5 p.m. or face unspecified consequences, likely backto-work legislation. The SGEU, at first cautiously optimistic about the conciliator’s report, was clearly angered by Devine’s comments. Declared chief union negotiator Rick August: “We consider it blackmail. It’s an intentional provocation.”

The Ready formula seemed to take the government’s side. It recommended that the union accept the province’s offer of a three-per-cent wage increase retroactive to last Oct. 1 and a lumpsum signing bonus of $780. In order to end the protracted dispute—the union has been without a contract since October, 1984—Ready proposed that debates over job classifications and decentralized hiring be temporarily shelved. Because the SGEU agreed to Ready’s appointment, some observers said that the union may well accept the conciliator’s advice.

The SGEU’s rotating strikes have crippled some government services. A continuing walkout by land titles workers in Regina has severely slowed the city’s real estate industry. About $60 million in transactions has been tied up because Regina’s 536 agents have been unable to complete deals and collect commissions. Said Wayne White, past president of the city’s real estate association: “We’re at the crisis point.” But last week, responding to Devine’s warning, the union vowed that walkouts would continue until a negotiated settlement was reached.

The heightened tension in the SGEU dispute came amid growing anger among labor leaders over a controversial Saskatchewan Labor Relations Board ruling in another drawn-out contract battle. The board ruled on Jan. 10 that Canada Safeway Ltd. had not acted improperly when it unilaterally imposed new working conditions on unionized clerks in 16 Saskatchewan stores. When negotiations broke down last November, Safeway changed the terms and conditions of their contract, hiring part-time employees to bag groceries and imposing a new work schedule. The cost-cutting measures were largely a response to the increasingly competitive retail food industry in Regina. Safeway’s wholesale subsidiary, Macdonalds Consolidated, is embroiled in another bitter battle with 200 unionized warehouse workers in Regina and Saskatoon, who have been locked out since last October.

According to union leaders, Safeway’s unilateral action violated the tradition of honoring the terms of expired contracts. And the ruling prompted immediate calls for the resignation of labor board chairman Dennis Ball. In fact, two members of the five-man board disagreed strongly enough with the ruling to write a dissenting opinion. Their position: “The majority decision will result in chaos in established bargaining procedures.” Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour pressed the Devine government to recall the provincial legislature and amend the Trade Union Act to disallow the judgment. Said federation vice-president Bonnie Pearson: “The terms of a contract have always stayed in place—that has been the premise of labor-management negotiations.”

For his part, Labor Minister Grant Schmidt seemed unlikely to intervene. Declared Schmidt: “I do not believe this is an emergency situation. The world of work is not going to collapse as a result of this.” Indeed, the Devine government may gain politically from taking a hard line with organized labor. As the fourth anniversary of the Conservative election victory approaches, there are growing signs that the premier may want to placate some elements of the party who say that he is leaning too far to the left.

Of the 55 Conservative MLAs elected to the 64-seat legislature in April, 1982, 13 have resigned from the caucus or are seriously considering leaving politics. Said MLA Lloyd Hampton, who left the Tories to join the separatist Western Canada Concept party last month: “I consider myself a traditional right winger and I am not too happy with the direction of the present administration.” A Tory showdown with the unions, which could be blamed in part on their traditional allies in the opposition New Democratic Party, would be a convenient Conservative launching pad for a Saskatchewan election, expected before autumn.

—DALE EISLER in Regina