Monday, March 10, 2008

Sask. Party fires Labour Relations Board chair and vice-chairs without cause; breaks election promise to provide more transparency in government

Labour Minister Rob Norris

News of the Saskatchewan Party government’s firing of the chair and vice-chairs of the Labour Relations Board (LRB) first broke on the afternoon of Thursday, Mar. 6. It came with little warning and less than 24-hours later Labour Minister Rob Norris had named the new chair. The replacements for vice-chair are pending.

The government’s actions broke a promise the party made during the 2007 provincial election to “provide Saskatchewan people with more transparency and accountability…in Government.” [Securing the Future (Oct. 2007)]

It also betrayed the party’s position that was put forward by former leader Elwin Hermanson during the 2003 election.

In his Oct. 15, 2003, response to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) 2003 Leaders’ Survey on Small Business Issues, Hermanson said “The Saskatchewan Party believes the Labour Relations Board must be completely balanced in its treatment of employees and employers in all matters before it and supports an open and accountable process in the selection of the board’s chair and vice-chair.”

The CFIB supported the same thing.

In its April 2003 pre-election platform: Fixing the Fundamentals: A Business Plan for Saskatchewan the business lobby group recommended the government “Create a more balanced climate at the Labour Relations Board” and “Ensure a more open and transparent process of selecting the Chair, Vice-Chair and members of the board.”

Minister Norris’s move delivered neither of these and the CFIB, an organization prone to outrage and hysteria at the drop of a hat, has remained silent.

Usually when someone is fired they’re given reasons why. In the case of LRB chair James Seibel and vice-chairs Angela Zborosky and Catherine Zuck there was nothing.

When the story broke Norris was apparently in transit and unavailable for comment.

Kathy Young, executive director of communications for the Sask. Party government, described the firings as routine for a new government and denied there was a political agenda.

“We don’t think it’s vindictive at all. In fact, the person that’s going to be replacing the chair is someone with a great reputation who has been around on both sides of the labour equation,” said Young, who declined to name the new chair. [Terminated; SFL president says gov’t fired chair, vice-chairs of labour board (StarPhoenix, March 6, 2008)]

In a news release the following day the government said Seibel, Zborosky and Zuck were “terminated without cause.”

In the news article Unions upset, but Saskatchewan minister defends firing of labour board officials (Canadian Press, March 7, 2008) Jennifer Graham reported that Norris spent Friday defending his move to fire the three LRB members.

“Well, you know new governments come in and make changes, and obviously that’s the case here,” Norris said.

Zuck received a letter of dismissal while in the midst of a hearing.

Norris didn’t answer questions about why it was felt the three were not qualified to continue in their posts.

In other words the government’s move was indeed purely political.

Norris announced that the new chair of the LRB will be Ken Love, Q.C. of Regina.

According to the news release “Love is a partner in the MacLean Keith law firm and has over 30 years of legal experience with the City of Regina, the provincial government and in private practice. He has represented both employees and the City of Regina before the LRB on numerous occasions.”

No sooner was the ink dry on his appointment when Love’s and Norris’s credibility were blown out of the water.

In Gov't continues LRB shuffle (StarPhoenix, Mar. 8, 2008) Norris said Love is “seasoned, he’s experienced and he brings the sense of balance that I think the people of Saskatchewan have come to expect.”

Norris said Love had gone before the board “on both sides of issues,” and a government press release touts Love as having represented both employees and employers before the labour board.

This quickly proved false when “A government spokesperson confirmed Friday Love had never represented a union before the board.”

In Regina lawyer named head of Sask. labour relations board (CBC News, Mar. 7, 2008) Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich said he would reserve criticism about Love until he see some of his decisions, although he had some concerns.

He said a quick search of a legal database showed that over the past 20 years Love had worked on seven cases that had come before the labour relations board.

In three, he represented workers who wanted to decertify their union, while in three more, he represented an employer against a union. In the seventh case, he was also opposed to union interests, according to Hubich.

“No one I’ve talked to has ever retained him as a union-side lawyer,” he said.

In his column Wall appointing too many friends (StarPhoenix, March 8, 2008) the Leader-Post’s Murray Mandryk said “the biggest problem with Premier Brad Wall’s government -- the one he may pay dearly for in years to come -- is the rampant cronyism we’re now seeing in his appointments.”

Mandryk called Norris’s claim that Love’s appointment was strictly merit-based “nonsense” and went on to confirm the concern that “he has almost exclusively been a management lawyer who hasn’t represented workers unless it was to decertify a union.”

Furthermore, Love is a long-time Saskatchewan Party supporter having contributed $469.23 to the party in 2004 and $949.50 in 2003. He also worked as vice-president of the Regina South constituency association.

In contrast it appears there were no protests when Seibel, Zborosky or Zuck were appointed. A search of StarPhoenix and Leader-Post articles back to 2000 show barely a mention has been made of the three individuals.

The Saskatchewan Party raised no objections or concerns over their appointments in the Legislature or at the committee level.

A search through the registered political party’s fiscal period returns filed with Elections Saskatchewan for 2004 to 2006 reveals that none of the three former board members appears to have contributed to the Saskatchewan NDP, which appointed them.

The last case of any significant notoriety involving the LRB was in 2006 when Wal-Mart, claiming bias, had applied for a court ruling that the board should be barred from hearing cases or making judgments on any cases involving the retail giant.

But that application was denied by both the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal and a Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench justice, prior to the bid by Wal-Mart to gain leave to appeal the matter to the Supreme Court. Canada’s highest court declined to hear the case. [Court won’t hear Wal-Mart appeal (StarPhoenix, Apr 20, 2007)]

As it turned out the accusations of bias were unfounded.

What usually gets overlooked is the fact that the LRB has an extremely low reversal rate when its cases are reviewed by the Court of Queen’s Bench and the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.

At the time of the Wal-Mart controversy Hubich pointed out that in the last eight years, out of over 1,300 cases, only six labour board decisions have been overturned. Hubich noted that this kind of track record should confirm that the board isn’t biased. [Court ruling throws wrench into bleating over labour board bias (Planet S, Sept. 14, 2006)]

Even Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk doesn’t seem to buy the whole labour law bias argument.

In Labour law bias questionable (StarPhoenix, Sep 2, 2006) Mandryk said “there’s little evidence in the work-stoppage statistics that suggest Saskatchewan is any more or less pro-union than any other jurisdiction.

“There were 10 labour disruptions (strikes or lockouts) in Saskatchewan in 2005, involving 1,884 workers and accounting for 45,042 lost-person days, according to Department of Labour statistics.

“That’s relatively consistent with the province’s 10-year-average of 43,011 lost-person days each year from 1996 to 2005.

“It’s also consistent, on a per capita basis, with other western provinces. Consider the 10-year average lost-person days in: Manitoba (51,000); Alberta (104,000), and B.C. (328,000).

“If Saskatchewan laws are more labour friendly, it’s not reflected in the statistics on strikes and lockouts.”

Finally, it’s interesting to note that in his infamous Sept. 2004 economic paper The Promise of Saskatchewan, Premier Brad Wall spends considerable time citing what he believes are barriers to growth that exist in the province. In all, Wall identifies some twenty barriers but conspicuously absent from his list are many of the things the business lobby constantly complain about: labour laws, minimum wage, employment insurance, Workers’ Compensation, social assistance, Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board and essential services legislation. Why is that?

In a Dec. 10, 2004, letter to Saskatchewan Business Council member Marilyn Braun-Pollon of the CFIB, Wall said Saskatchewan has a “reputation as a business-friendly environment.”

Then in an Apr. 3, 2007, news release Wall said Saskatchewan was “the lowest cost jurisdiction…with fewer trade barriers and restrictions than either B.C. or Alberta.”

This is not exactly the portrait of a province on the verge of collapse because of labour laws. Yet that’s what groups like the CFIB and Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce would like people to believe. The scary thing is that thanks to Premier Brad Wall’s “rampant cronyism” these people are now being allowed to infiltrate government.


At 10:10 PM, Blogger kwesterner said...

Well if SaskParty Commuinications Director Kathy Young is expressing correctly the SaskParty position that the SaskParty Gov firings aren't vindicitive... then I would like to know what the SaskParty Gov would consider to be vindicitive? Maybe SFL President Hubick could answer this question having seen more as well.

It seems to me to be a lack of moral compass that is plaguing the SaskParty membership and leadership. If they don't consider destroying someone's career vindictive I can't imagine what measuring stick they are using.


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