Friday, April 18, 2008

SUN vs. essential services: So what?

In recent days, the NDP has railed against the Sask Party for legislation that would ensure essential services are maintained during any strike action. Yesterday, NDP Labour critic Andy Iwanchuk complained, "What does that do to the system if you have a stakeholder such as the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses [SUN] that are in there and are potentially not co-operating with this or understanding this?"

No worries. The case made by SUN president Rosalie Longmore in a letter to the Leader-Post shouldn't compel anyone, though it gets high marks for audacity.

Longmore complains, “the Saskatchewan Party government has attempted to justify its interference in the collective bargaining process by saying that changes to essential services legislation are necessary to ensure public safety.”

Yet Longmore herself made recruitment and retention a prerequisite to collective bargaining talks with her employer, the Saskatchewan Organization of Health Associations, and then jumped over that employer to secure a nursing recruitment and retention fund from the Sask Party government. Is this not “interference in the collective bargaining process” of her own?

Incredibly, the bulk of Longmore’s argument consists of examples of essential services kept during SUN’s 1999 job action. Not once does Longmore mention that strike was illegal! Just five hours after the strike announcement, the Saskatchewan government ordered nurses back to work. A Court of Queen’s bench injunction followed, meaning nurses could be held in contempt of court, subject to heavy fines or even prison. The only defense SUN had left was public sympathy—something it dare not lose by failing to provide essential services. They were as essential to SUN’s bargaining position as they were to public health.

Furthermore, Longmore’s claim that SUN worked to ensure essential services seems to contradict her comments at the time. On April 13, 1999, she was quoted as saying, "I cannot ask nurses to go back to the working conditions they have left,” and added, “It’s an individual’s choice” whether to defy the court or not. Can union bosses who said they left nurses to their conscience now claim they ordered some back to work to ensure essential services?

The proposed legislation is about many unions, not just SUN. Nevertheless, Longmore, having discussed her nurses alone, makes sweeping conclusions on the government’s motives: “Therefore, it is clear that the true intent of Bill 5 has nothing to do with respect to ensuring public safety, but rather is intended to strip union members of the right to strike.”

Actually Bill 5 affirms a union’s right to strike. Yet, even if this were compromised, why should Longmore care? Legalities didn’t stop her nurses from picketing in 1999—and getting a substantial pay raise for it. Besides, if SUN nurses always have and always will ensure essential services, as Longmore argues, what does SUN have to lose from legislation that guarantees the same?

Bill 5 ensures that essential services of public employers continue during a labour dispute to prevent danger to life, health, or safety; the destruction or serious deterioration of machinery, equipment or premises; serious environmental damage; and disruption of the courts. Such sound goals, already enforced by legislation in every other province, are the reasons why just one in five Saskatchewanians polled have opposed the bill.

While clarification on the scope and extent of Bill 5 is important, SUN's opposition isn't reason enough to flinch on a bill with sound goals.

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