On the Abuse of Language: “Modernizing” Labour Relations

The government of Saskatchewan is currently undertaking a controversial overhaul of the province’s labour legislation into the mammoth omnibus Bill 85. But those that might be concerned about the rather rash decision to overturn 107 years of labour legislation in the period of a few months need not worry, because what the Saskatchewan government is actually doing is modernizing our labour laws. That’s a relief, “modernizing” has such a new shiny ring to it! Who could be against “modernizing” anything? This legislation must really be cutting edge stuff, thinking outside-the-box, labour legislation 2.0 and all that! So what innovative and pioneering changes are in this legal basket of advanced modernity?

Well the main change is that Bill 85 will reduce statutory protections for workers and undermine collective bargaining rights. That means that workers will have less protection in regards to work breaks, overtime, holidays, scheduling etc. In addition, given new employee categories contained in the legislation, many workers that were previously protected by a collective agreement may find that they no longer are.

Wait, this sounds very un-modern doesn’t it? When did workers in Saskatchewan last have the pleasure of not being protected by the eight-hour-day? That would be 1947,  a time most people would agree is not exactly “modern” (rural electrification would wait until 1949). Okay, so removing statutory protections for workers isnt really a modern idea, it’s actually pretty antiquated. What about Bill 85’s stance on collective bargaining, surely this must be a modern concept? When were Canadian workers last denied the terrible freedom to collectively bargain on their own behalf? That would be 1937, prior to the successful strike by the United Auto Workers at the General Motors’ plant in Oshawa, Ontario and prior to the invention of the colour television.

(Okay, granted Bill 85 is not overturning the principle of collective bargaining, it’s just restricting what workers will be covered by it).

But the thrust seems undeniable doesn’t it? This isn’t the modernization of labour relations – it’s a return to the past when workers enjoyed less protections, less rights, and less power in the workplace. The government’s proposed labour legislation could be called lots of things – antique, primitive, ancient, retrograde, even antediluvian – but modern certainly isn’t one of them.

Simon Enoch

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