Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has had a cake walk since defeating Lorne Calvert and the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the November 2007 provincial elections. After Calvert’s resignation and as the NDP went through a leadership contest, Wall enjoyed a period of easy living.
You can call this a honeymoon for the new Saskatchewan Party government, or you can admit that the NDP in opposition has been singularly pathetic. There are just no fundamental ideological differences on the big economic issues, and that will be even more true now that Dwain Lingenfelter, the former deputy premier under Roy Romanow, has been anointed NDP leader.
The party of Tommy Douglas no more
In its final days the Calvert government, desperate to stave off defeat at the hands of the surging Saskatchewan Party, pretty well implemented the entire Saskatchewan Party pro-business economic program. There is really no fundamental disagreement on provincial economic policy — the business lobby demands; the government, whether NDP or Saskatchewan Party, implements.
That is why former NDP finance minister Harry van Mulligan stated that the Saskatchewan Party’s latest budget was pretty much a replay of earlier NDP budgets. And that is why, at the end of this year’s session, former premier Lorne Calvert concluded that the Saskatchewan Party’s legislative agenda was pretty much what an NDP government might have done, with the exception of the attacks on labour. In such a situation, when there is a bipartisan agreement on broad economic and social policy, politics in the Legislature becomes silly nit-picking and name calling. The deeper debate is really about which party can best administer the operation of capitalism in Saskatchewan — the NDP or the Saskatchewan Party?
The only real difference at this point between the NDP and the Saskatchewan Party is that the old Calvert government refused to give the business lobby everything it demanded, only most of it. The Wall government is the loyal toady of the business lobby, willing to do pretty much anything business demands
The increasingly familiar attack on the working class
Premier Brad Wall is being shrewd, focussing his right-wing efforts on a few key issues he is determined to drive through, while continuing to muzzle the social conservative yahoos in his caucus.
Wall’s first-term focus is on smashing the labour movement, expanding the uranium industry beyond mining and milling, and institutionalizing the business lobby’s policy clout and credibility through Enterprise Saskatchewan.
The political key in this agenda is the labour movement, the source of the most significant resistance in the past to right-wing governments, like Ross Thatcher’s Liberals in the 1960s and Grant Devine’s Tories in the 1980s. Wall knows the labour movement is the only real political opposition to his agenda capable of mass mobilizations on the ground and in workplaces.
Let there be no doubt that Premier Wall is determined to smash the labour movement and to do it very quickly. And he intends to do a more thorough job than Ross Thatcher and Grant Devine. It is the one far-right policy left over from the original Reform/Saskatchewan party that Wall has never hidden or softened.
If Wall pulls off just this feat during his time in office, the business lobby will love him forever. Organized labour, with a membership of around 100,000, or one in four workers, is very strong in Saskatchewan, thanks to modestly friendly labour laws put in place by NDP governments over the years. Saskatchewan has the fourth highest rate of unionization among Canada’s provinces, far ahead of Alberta and even slightly ahead of British Columbia. To right-wing ideologues, and their business lobby bosses, this is not acceptable.
Wall has embarked on a two-pronged attack on labour, one targeting the large public sector, the other targeting the private sector. Most attention has been on the attack on public sector unions — The Public Service Essential Services Act. The NDP fought it, noting it is a fundamental attack on the right to strike by giving overwhelming power to employers to designate what workers are deemed essential. Quite simply, it will mean the end of effective legal strikes in the public sector.
Critics maintain that it will not bring labour peace, but increase conflict and lead frustrated public sector unions to embark on illegal strikes. With this law behind them, management in the public sector can laugh off a union’s threat of strike action knowing full well that any strike can be rendered ridiculous by imposing ludicrously long lists of those workers considered essential.
Wall’s greatest fear in his effort to shackle public sector workers was the nurses. In the past, regardless of party in power, nurses have proven particularly adept at holding effective legal strikes, followed when necessary by illegally defying back-to-work laws, while maintaining broad public support.
Wall did not want to test his law first with the nurses, or with the teachers, since governments pretty well always ultimately lose public support in fights with nurses and teachers. Hence Wall’s first move was to neutralize the nurses by offering them a sweet-heart four year contract, including hefty pay increases of 35 per cent to general duty nurses over the life of the contract. The 7,200 member Saskatchewan Union of Nurses voted 78 per cent to accept the deal. This removed the nurses from the list of Wall’s concerns until after the next election. The Saskatchewan Federation of Teachers is currently engaged in contract talks and Wall will do everything he can to ensure a peaceful settlement.
Wall would prefer to first use this law against the often more politicized and militant government workers or hospital workers, should they dare go on strike. These groups do not have deep support among the public and have to work hard to rouse public sympathy. This is particularly true for government workers.
The first real test of Wall’s law is now underway as the three unions representing about 25,000 hospital and health-care workers are in negotiations — Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGGEU). These unions are seeking settlements similar to that achieved by the nurses and at a time when the province’s coffers are full. Wall is pleading looming poverty in the context of the economic crisis.
The preliminary test was whether the new public sector law had a chilling effect on contract demands and on any contemplation of strike action. It did not. The unions are presenting an aggressive package and won an overwhelming strike mandate.
As expected, the employers’ group (Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations — SAHO) has used the new law as a club, listing virtually all workers as essential and sending letters to union members warning them that the new law requires them to stay on the job in the event of job action. This has resulted in a flurry of complaints from both sides to the Labour Relations Board alleging unfair labour practices.
The health unions, so far, are standing firm with a solid strike mandate, while the employers are attempting to bludgeon union members into submission with the law. Should strike action occur, the law will be tested on the ground as the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour decides whether to follow through on its promise of active solidarity up to and including a general sympathy strike should the Wall government use the law to smash a strike.
Embedding an anti-labour regime: A permanent attack on workers?
The much more serious long-term attack on organized labour are the amendments to The Trade Union Act which affect all organized workers, but most significantly those in the private sector fighting hostile bosses, and those yet unorganized who might hope to succeed in an organizing drive.
The business lobby is delighted with these amendments, proclaiming they send a clear message to businesses and investors looking at Saskatchewan that the climate here has finally become “business friendly.” A “business friendly” climate in the right-wing context of labour laws means a “union hostile” climate. The amendments make it more difficult to sign up members to a union by forcing a compulsory vote requiring that a majority of those eligible to vote actually cast ballots before a certification vote can succeed. (By this standard most municipal governments, and even some provincial governments, could not take office after winning an election since less than 50 per cent of eligible voters actually voted.)
Furthermore, employers are now free to intervene in the sign up process, and during collective bargaining, by communicating facts or opinions to employees. Yeah, right, like “if you sign a union card and vote for the union the company may move to Alberta” or “if you go on strike we may have to close down.”
These amendments not only make it virtually impossible to organize the unorganized, but cripple unions during contract negotiations. Finally, these pro-business amendments will inevitably lead to a series of de-certification drives as some employers embark on aggressive union-busting campaigns. Curiously the NDP has been virtually silent on this more serious attack on organized labour.
The Wall government recently escalated its attack on organized labour by introducing and holding hearings on Bill 80 (The Construction Industry Labour Relations Amendment Act 2009). Presently about one in five construction workers in Saskatchewan is organized into province-wide unions based on the actual trade practiced.
There is a closed shop and workers on all unionized sites must join the union representing their trade. Bill 80 would take away these provisions by opening the door to all unions not presently able to organize in Saskatchewan. Two unions in particular want in – the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), a notoriously employer-dominated union based in Alberta, and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers (CEP), hungry for new members. Not only would the law open the door to certification battles and union busting, but it also undermines traditionally militant unions organized by trade by allowing “wall-to-wall” certifications, typical of CLAC in Alberta, where all workers on a site, regardless of trade, are in one union.
Further, the law will allow employers to select a union of its choice on currently non-union sites, and to resurrect old inactive spin-off companies and pick a union of choice for “wall-to-wall” certification. There hasn’t been a strike in the Saskatchewan construction industry in 17 years, thanks to the laws brought in by the NDP to ensure reasonable fairness and hence labour peace. Bill 80 will set the stage for a divisive battle among unions, open the door to non-unionized employers to bid on jobs, and allow the establishment of a whole series of employer-dominated company unions. The result will be turmoil – and, politically, a bitterly divided and weakened working class. For the Wall government it is a “win/win” situation. First, Wall is delivering to the business lobby’s long-standing demands for reducing the power of unions in the construction industry. Second, Wall can watch as an important sector of the organized working class implodes into internecine, intra-class war.
There is no delicate way to put this. The Wall government has declared war on Saskatchewan’s working class. This is the first and foundational step in his broader agenda.
A green and sustainable economy? Not in Wall’s Saskatchewan
Premier Brad Wall is determined to expand Saskatchewan’s nuclear industry, now limited to uranium mining and milling. Wall has begun an aggressive campaign to soften public resistance to further nuclear-related developments in the province, including a nuclear reactor.
It is highly unlikely that Saskatchewan will ever build a nuclear reactor for a variety of reasons — it is too costly (more than $20-billion), and even if privately built, the government would doubtless have to provide loan guarantees; Saskatchewan does not need a nuclear reactor, the only purpose would be to put the province at risk in order to export electricity to the U.S. power grid; even the private sector nuclear industry favours Alberta over Saskatchewan should any reactor be built; most reactors have, in the long run, proven uneconomical, with cost overruns, construction delays, long delays in start up as bugs are worked out, and frequent breakdowns after commissioning; and finally, with the spectres of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl hanging over the issue, public resistance will galvanize if the project ever becomes more than just speculation.
Nevertheless, given the huge piles of public funds up for grabs by the private sector, under pressure from the business lobby the Wall government just might do it and damn the long term public consequences.
So what might Wall be up to? He is softening up the public in order to embark at least on uranium refining in Saskatchewan, something hotly debated and rejected during the Allan Blakeney years (1971-1982). After Saskatchewan has a hugely divisive public debate on a nuclear reactor, Wall might well pull it off the table and propose that Saskatchewan instead allow the less dangerous, less costly, less risky, and still hugely profitable uranium refining business.
A radical right putsch within the Saskatchewan State?
Wall wants to leapfrog the cadre of senior civil servants who give advice on public economic policy — advice which might not meet his conservative, free-market ideological standards. To do so, Wall has established Enterprise Saskatchewan as an arms length, unaccountable advisory group dominated by the business lobby.
Enterprise Saskatchewan has begun to propose economic policies, priorities and strategies directly to the premier and the cabinet, thereby bypassing the senior civil service and the senior economic gurus in the Crown sector. Wall has begun to use the agency as a tool to slowly shift the economic policy consensus, which he officially now shares with the NDP, dramatically to the right.
A key feature of this will be an attack on the Crown corporations and their central place in the province’s economy. Outright privatization proposals will not be entertained since Wall has pledged not to privatize the Crowns. Recent reports on the big Crowns — telephone, power, natural gas, insurance — have been very positive. They are doing well and making large profits for the public coffers. Nevertheless, Saskatchewan Party ministers have commented on how they want the Crowns to stick to their core activities; to avoid aggressive expansion outside those cores, especially outside the province; and not to become overly active in competing with private businesses.
These themes will be picked up by Enterprise Saskatchewan — the Crowns should narrow their focus to their core activities, and thus perhaps shed themselves of some or all of their “non-core” activities; Crowns should not, as a matter of principle, seek opportunities to compete with private sector entrepreneurs; Crowns should begin to develop a series of partnerships with the private sector as the Crowns develop and expand. And, presto, before your very eyes, the autonomous, publicly accountable Crowns, free to pursue broader public policy objectives, will metamorphose into joint ventures with private capital, while slowly divesting themselves of many of their current “non-core” and very profitable ventures.
Wall will celebrate this as the final step in making Saskatchewan totally “business friendly” — no longer will fully publicly-owned Crowns compete with private capital and frighten investors away. Instead Saskatchewan will have big friendly joint venture, public/private partnerships where we all work in harmony for the greater good. Good bye Crowns, hello unfettered capitalism.
Remaking the Saskatchewan State and the legacy of the NDP
The NDP has fumbled the public ownership ball badly over the years, satisfied to rest smugly on the laurels of the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) innovators. The NDP has largely stopped defending public ownership and public entrepreneurship as a good general economic strategy, embracing private capitalism for everything but the basic Crowns.
The fact is that public ownership in a capitalist economy may be just a case of state capitalism, since such companies behave like all other corporations. But the bottom line is that the Saskatchewan people own the Crowns and are thereby the sole beneficiaries of the profits earned, and the Crowns can be used as instruments of broader social and economic public policies. For such reasons, full public ownership is in the public interest, even if such public corporations must claw aggressively against rapacious capitalist competitors.
So Wall’s apparently “modest” and “restrained” agenda — according to his supporters in the private media — is, at a deeper level, very ambitious indeed. This “modest” agenda includes:
smashing and taming organized labour and thus the working class in general; a significant expansion of the nuclear industry in Saskatchewan, after over three decades of strictly limiting it to mining and milling uranium; and embarking on an economic policy which will first erode, and then destroy, Saskatchewan’s large and autonomous public sector.
In other words, Wall is out to re-make Saskatchewan according to his right-wing, pro-business ideals. And Wall knows from past experience that in order to pull this off organized labour in particular, and the working class in general, must be crushed and tamed, and, if possible, removed as an active political player in the province. The beginning of the end of both the Thatcher and Devine regimes was first rooted in active resistance from the working class and its organizations.
There is no crisis without resistance
Is the Saskatchewan labour movement up to the heavy task history has again imposed upon it? Is the movement, and its institutions, ready and willing to do what has to be done? That is as yet unclear. Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich has warned of a general strike if the Wall government uses these laws to smash strikes and shackle trade unions. The federation has launched a constitutional challenge of the two labour laws in the courts on the grounds that they are Charter violations of the right to free collective bargaining and to organize new unions.
The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses has also launched its own legal challenge of the constitutionality of the essential services law, looking forward to future battles with the Wall government. The federation also filed a successful formal complaint about the two laws with the International Trade Union Confederation which resulted in official criticism of the laws for “reducing the bargaining rights of a union” and “weakening the rights of workers to organize.”
But the real political test of the laws will occur when strike action is taken. If the federation can organize broad solidarity among its affiliates, up to and including some forms of sympathy job actions, and if the federation can win the battle for public support, then it could be the beginning of the end of the Wall regime.
If, however, such efforts do not occur, or fail if they do occur, and strikes are successfully smashed by the Wall government, and offending unions are financially crippled by huge fines, the business lobby’s dream of a tame, cap-in-hand working class in Saskatchewan could be realized.
J. F. Conway is a University of Regina political sociologist and the author of The West: The History of a Region in Confederation. He is also a regular political columnist appearing in Regina’s Prairie Dog and Saskatoon’s Planet S.
This article was originally published by the Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin and is reprinted here with permission.
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