The Man Who Hated Unions

Brad Wall’s contempt for labour is a toxic stain on his legacy

Labour Day | by Gregory Beatty

photo Darrol Hofmeister

During the traditional dog days of Saskatchewan politics, premier Brad Wall created headlines with his Aug. 10 announcement he was leaving provincial politics.

Was University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith surprised?

Nope.

“I think the buzz had been that he was going to retire at some point in this fiscal year, so I wasn’t surprised when he made the announcement,” said Smith. “Although the timing was a little unexpected, as August is usually pretty quiet. But this year it’s been quite busy.”

Wall’s announcement came a few days before the latest scandal around Bill Boyd — allegations of conflict of interest and misrepresentation in the Kindersley MLA’s private dealings with Chinese investors — surfaced. Not surprisingly, critics were quick to pounce — suggesting Wall had resigned to distance himself from the ever-deepening ethical quagmire that the Saskatchewan Party seems to be sinking into.

Others accused him, now that the boom was over and the party could no longer rely on abundant resource revenue to fuel its popularity, of abandoning Saskatchewan.

There’s a certain amount of truth in that, says Smith.

“Mr. Wall’s legacy will be about the decade of the commodity boom. Ideally, he likely would’ve preferred to step away without delivering the draconian budget this spring. But that didn’t happen.

“Will his legacy be secure? Certainly, with Sask. Party supporters, he’ll go down as one of the most successful, if not the most successful, right-of-centre politicians in the province’s history. For left-of-centre voters, it will be a mixed legacy of governing during good times, but not having a plan for bad times.”

Throughout his political career, one quality that generally won Wall admiration — even among his critics — was his ability to work constructively to build consensus and even reverse a policy decision if public sentiment indicated his government was wrong.

One area where that spirit of conciliation was glaringly absent, though, was in Wall’s dealings with organized labour.

In January 2015, you might recall, a piece of labour legislation the Sask. Party passed early in its first term (Bill 5, related to essential services) was actually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada.

A companion piece of legislation, Bill 6, did pass constitutional muster. The Sask. Party’s goal there was to revamp the rules governing trade unions to correct what it (and its backers) perceived to be a pro-labour bias against business interests.

That led to counter charges, which the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and other litigants pursued in court, that the government had unfairly tilted the playing field toward business at the expense of workers’ constitutional rights to freedom of association and thought.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court disagreed. But even if Bill 6 was constitutional, its anti-labour message is clear.

Other challenges to labour by the Wall government include a heavy-handed amalgamation with minimal input from labour of a huge amount of labour legislation in the Saskatchewan Employment Act; resisting calls for a higher minimum wage; and aggressively promoting P3 partnerships and a stealth privatization agenda that, through outsourcing and sale of Crown assets, has put public sector jobs at risk.

The Sask. Party — which will celebrate 10 years in power in November — has no relationship with organized labour, says Smith.

“If there’s a part of Wall’s legacy that resonates with conservatives across the board, it’s his clear disdain for organized labour — both with respect to public sector unions and some of the personalities in the broader labour movement, including the president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, Larry Hubich,” Smith says.

Early in the Wall government’s first term, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses did land a sizeable wage increase. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify as a big win for labour, says Smith. “When you look at the numbers, that was really catch-up for a decade where nurses fell behind other jurisdictions. So in some ways, the government had no choice.”

Overall, though, the Wall government has been very heavy-handed with labour, says Smith.

“Part of that, I think, is partisan, because the Saskatchewan Party knows that in the past organized labour has supported the NDP,” says Smith.

“But that part of Wall’s legacy, quite frankly, is a toxic one,” he says. ❧