Saskatchewan government backtracks on teachers’ salaries

By Charles Smith

The Saskatchewan Party’s admission last week that it would not fully honour the negotiated salary increases for teachers is yet another blemish on this government’s poor commitment to respect and promote the principles of collective bargaining.

For those following closely, this is the latest in a series of poor policy decisions that has driven a wedge between the province’s labour movement in both the public and private sector. While some may expect such rocky relationships between a right-of-centre government and a left-of-centre labour union movement, the long-term implications in ignoring the established principles of collective bargaining has the potential to undermine professional standards, participatory workplace relations and long-term stability in numerous public sectors.desks-classroom-schools

For teachers, the implications of the government’s decision to download a significant portion of its agreed-upon wage increase to school boards will likely mean austerity in the province’s schools. School boards will ultimately be forced to make significant cuts in order to make up the shortfall. This will lead to more work-related pressure on teachers and will undoubtedly have consequences on the quality of education in Saskatchewan. Teachers would also be justified in wondering how serious the government is in supporting the province’s education sector.

In 2011, long-standing delays in collective bargaining led to a provincewide walkout, while in 2013 and 2014, collective bargaining led to numerous benefit changes that placed a greater burden on teachers to support their pensions. Now the government is reneging on its wage commitments in that collective agreement. One would expect that the leaders of the teachers’ federation will loudly criticize this decision, demanding the government respect the collective agreement it signed in good faith in 2014.

Beyond the immediate implications in Saskatchewan’s classrooms, the decision to side-step a negotiated collective agreement demonstrates this government’s tense relationship to workers’ collective rights to freely bargain. This is surprising, given that it was the Saskatchewan Party’s ill-advised decision to impose sweeping essential services legislation in 2007 that led to the Supreme Court of Canada concluding that collective bargaining and the right to strike are essential rights protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the province of Saskatchewan’s unilateral withdrawal of the right of public sector workers to strike amounted “to a substantial interference with their right to a meaningful process of collective bargaining” and was therefore unconstitutional. As meaningful collective bargaining can only occur if there is a legitimate threat of workers withdrawing their labour, the majority of judges argued that the strike now deserved “constitutional benediction.”

In arriving at that the conclusion, the Supreme Court stated that collective bargaining and the right to strike furthered “the Charter values of human dignity, equality, liberty, respect for the autonomy of the person and enhancement of democracy.” In other words, the underlying values that support collective bargaining and the conclusion of freely negotiated contracts not only protect workers against arbitrary decisions by employers, but in the public sector, also advances democratic dialogue over a host of public policy questions by providing input from front-line service providers.

Having been on the losing side of this particular Charter decision, one would have expected the Saskatchewan government to reaffirm its commitment to the principles of collective bargaining by respecting the contract it signed with teachers in 2014. Unfortunately, the government is failing in that commitment.

The long-term implications of this decision could prove troubling, as it will set a poisonous precedent over future negotiations across the public sector. If you are doubting if this is the case, ask yourself this: Why would any worker or union trust government negotiators if duly signed collective agreements can be changed, altered or abandoned unilaterally by the government? This decision certainly sets a dangerous precedent.

Originally published in the Regina Leader Post

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