Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sask. Party: Labour Minister Rob Norris takes major hit at CUPE convention; Meadow Lake and Moose Jaw North MLA’s refuse to meet with unions

Labour Minister Rob Norris at the CUPE Saskatchewan
convention in Saskatoon on March 14, 2008

CUPE Saskatchewan held its 2008 annual convention in Saskatoon from March 11-14 at the Delta Bessborough Hotel.

On the convention’s final day Saskatchewan Labour Minister Rob Norris addressed delegates on his government’s initiatives since being elected in Nov. 2007. This included the introduction of two controversial labour Bill’s: Public Service Essential Services Act and Trade Union Amendment Act, 2007.

To his credit Norris showed up at the Adam Ballroom for his 9:15 a.m. speech and later took questions. To his misfortune Norris showed up at the Adam Ballroom for his 9:15 a.m. speech and later took questions. It was within that span of twenty or so minutes following his address that Norris and his government’s carefully controlled and scripted communication strategy imploded.

The first speaker from the floor asked Norris to provide specific examples of where essential services were not provided during labour disputes.

Norris mentioned the snow plow operators during the SGEU public service strike last winter, and the 400 patients per day that he claims were left without adequate medical care during the CUPE strike at Saskatchewan’s two universities.

CUPE Saskatchewan president Tom Graham took a turn at the microphones and proceeded set the record straight on Norris’ examples. Graham effectively debunked both.

With respect to Norris’ first example news reports at the time show that highway workers were temporarily off the job from midnight on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2007, to Tuesday afternoon on Jan. 9, 2007.

In Blizzard blasts Saskatoon (Leader-Post, Jan. 11, 2007) the StarPhoenix’s Darren Bernhardt reported that the “blizzard began around midnight Jan. 10” and lasted 26 hours, so workers were indeed back on the job before it hit. Ironically, conditions that day forced provincial highways workers and snowplow drivers to shut down.

“It was a difficult day. The biggest problem was the visibility,” said Highways Department spokesperson Doug Wakabayashi.

Department policy states no plow is allowed to set out once visibility falls below 200 metres. At 100 m they are instructed to return.

“Given the stopping distances of our trucks, that’s effectively zero visibility,” said Wakabayashi. [Storm challenged emergency crews: Snowplow operators worked throughout night in Saskatoon (StarPhoenix, Jan. 12, 2007)]

Contrary to what the Saskatchewan Party has been saying it appears that leader Brad Wall did not call for essential services legislation during the strike by snowplow operators last January as forcefully as it would like people to believe.

A Jan. 9, 2007, Saskatchewan Party news release does not mention legislation at all. In it “Wall said there are a number of steps that should have been taken by the NDP that could have avoided the current situation. The ratio of in-scope to out-of-scope workers that stay on the job in the event of a strike could have been restored. In 2000, there were over 2,100 out-of-scope workers in the public sector (a ratio of 8 to 2). Today, the number is below 1,800 (a ratio of roughly 10 to 1).”

“A Saskatchewan Party government would also look at implementing final offer arbitration, where both sides present their best case and an independent third party makes the final decision,” Wall said.

“And, prior to the expiration of a contract, an agreement outlining the level of essential services to be provided could have been struck—something that happens routinely in the health care sector.”

In the article Province should have had deal before strike: Wall (Leader-Post, Jan. 10, 2007) Wall said there were “various options” the government could have pursued such as a mutual agreement or perhaps legislation. At least according to these sources Wall did not say essential services legislation must be implemented.

A column by the Leader-Post’s Murray Mandryk seemed to confirm this saying: “Opposition Leader Brad Wall only reluctantly talks about the prospect of back-to-work legislation and focuses instead on the government’s failure to come up with a proper contingency.” [SGEU strike changes complexion (StarPhoenix, Jan. 12, 2007)]

As for the CUPE 1975 strike in November 2007, Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich provided an accurate assessment of the situation in a CBC-Radio Saskatchewan interview with Morning Edition host Ted Deller on Dec. 20, 2007:
“The suggestion that 400 people were being turned away every day from the University of Saskatchewan hospital as a result of the CUPE 1975 strike is absolutely false. They have not identified a single person who was turned away as a result of that strike. My discussions with the people who work in that location say the reason that people were being turned away was because the doctors weren’t getting paid and they had a cash flow problem. So it wasn’t about whether or not a clerk, someone who types up a letter, has the ability to deliver some sort of healthcare services. Doctors, the medical people were all still at work. It was the people were filling out the paperwork who weren’t there. So it’s kind of a stretch to suggest that this was in the interest of public safety. This is ideological.”
And yet the Wall government continues to cite this as one of the reasons for its heavy-handed legislation.

Furthermore, it was just a few months earlier during a different dispute when the StarPhoenix reported that a Sask. Party MLA said such legislation wasn’t needed.

“We would certainly take steps to have both parties put together essential service agreements,” said Elwin Hermanson, speaking for the Sask. Party at the legislature.

Hermanson said the deals would have to be negotiated and he doesn’t think legislation is required. [HSAS, SAHO reach tentative agreement (StarPhoenix, July 12, 2007)]

Norris didn’t mention any of this in his speech to CUPE delegates.

In another question from the floor, CUPE Local 1975 vice-president Wayne Foley asked Norris if he or anyone in his government consulted with the president of the University of Saskatchewan about the essential services legislation before it was tabled on Dec. 19, 2007.

Norris indicated that he did not consult with any stakeholders until after the legislation was presented. Foley then asked Norris whether anyone in his department had consulted with U of S president Peter MacKinnon.

Norris said all consultation took place after the Bill’s introduction in the Legislature.

It was at this point that Foley produced an email that was obtained through a freedom of information request, which seemed to suggest otherwise.

In the Dec. 14, 2007, correspondence from Bonny Braden, the government’s director of media relations, to the minister’s director of communications, Herman Hulshof, regarding essential services, Braden says, “I had no doubt, just wanted to be in the loop too so I can help, I have a particular fondness for this one now! Ha. Just spoke with President MacKinnon and he’ll support us on this publicly so that’s cool, can you just let me in on the paper prep work too if you wouldn’t mind, just want to help, not interfere, hope I’m not irritating you Herman, my intentions are good.”

Braden was responding to an earlier message sent by Hulshof concerning the legislation.

Norris told the audience that he’d have to “take some time to look at this”.

(It should be noted that prior to being elected Norris worked for MacKinnon at the U of S.)

In the article Norris answers for e-mail (StarPhoenix, Mar. 15, 2008), MacKinnon denied seeing the legislation before it was tabled but said his views on the subject are well-known. MacKinnon said he is supportive of the concept.

As for Braden she said, “It was a conversation about his take on essential services from where he was in the middle of a strike where the issue was front and centre,” she said. “We didn’t discuss legislation. We discussed essential services and how he felt about it.”

Braden’s explanation seems a little thin since she is named in three emails on the same page that immediately precede the one mentioning MacKinnon. In fact, it appears that it was Braden’s email to Elaine Smith, the minister’s chief of staff, that was sent at 12:18 p.m. that initiated the subsequent string of responses ending with hers mentioning MacKinnon at 12:58 p.m. These messages seem to concern the legislation and not merely the concept of essential services.

In her email to Hulshof, Braden says “I have a particular fondness for this one now…” This one, what? It seems reasonable to conclude she means the legislation because that was the subject of the previous three messages.

Braden then says that MacKinnon will “support us on this publicly…” Support what publicly, the legislation? This too seems reasonable to assume since it clearly was the subject of the earlier emails.

It is also interesting to note that some of the emails going back and forth appear to include MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman (MLT) partner Kevin Wilson. Wilson is an experienced labour lawyer and head of MLT’s Saskatoon Labour & Employment Law Group.

One document, a draft Q & A sheet for The Essential Services Act has the name ‘Kevin’ written at the top and includes a page of MLT letterhead attached to the last page with handwritten notes. Do these belong to Wilson?

It also appears that Wilson may have been present at a Dec. 12 briefing with Minister Norris where the labour Bills and communications plan were to be discussed.

According to a Dec. 11, 2007, email from deputy minister Wynne Young to John Boyd at Labour and Mary Ellen Wellsch, the minister’s director of legal policy and legislative services, Young said Wilson “will be present to offer his take on this too.”

MLT is also home to Robert Pletch, the firm’s chairman and a long time Saskatchewan Party supporter. Pletch was recently appointed by the government to serve as the board chair for SaskEnergy. It appears that from 2002 to 2006 Pletch contributed approximately $10,142.86 to the party.

Exactly what MLT’s role was during the drafting of the legislation remains unclear. It would be interesting to know whether they are involved with the amendments and regulations as well.

At the convention a CUPE delegate from Meadow Lake told Norris that several constituents had been trying to meet with MLA Jeremy Harrison but hadn’t been successful. They ultimately received a fax from his office saying he would not meet with the union.

Another delegate told Norris a similar story saying that Warren Michelson, the Sask. Party MLA for Moose Jaw North would not meet with union members there either.

Norris attempted to justify his fellow MLA’s unacceptable behaviour by saying that CUPE president Tom Graham had submitted a lengthy response regarding the labour legislation to his department. It appears the minister felt that this was good enough. Never mind the fact that Harrison and Michelson were elected to represent all their constituents and not just those that voted for them. Norris offered no apology for their lousy conduct.

Norris was asked to answer yes or no whether his government would hold full public consultations on the labour Bills. Norris replied that that had already been done.

The government’s consultation process was limited in scope and seemed to be late in getting organized.

In a Dec. 11, 2007, email deputy minister Wynne Young asked John Boyd: “Can you put together a communication/feedback plan for post-introduction of these two Bills? We want to be able to say we heard from a broad range of stakeholders but at this point do not want a ‘laid on’ communication strategy. I’m thinking letters our to [sic] major stakeholders with soft invitation to provide feedback and the Minister and I meeting with major stakeholders – I’m open to ideas.”

Also on Dec. 11, 2007, was an email from Shannon Dumba, a Labour ministry communications consultant, to executive director of communications Gladys Wasylenchuk regarding a draft of the essential services news release that said, “It’s important we either direct comments to the website or an email address or we will be getting public inquiry phone calls/emails in the Communications branch. Creating an email address specifically for this legislation as was done with the OHS Review email box may help to send the message that the government is serious about considering feedback.”

A Dec. 17, 2007, email from Dumba to Wasylenchuk shows that the government decided on two types of stakeholder consultation: a “request for feedback” and a “request for meeting.”

Minister Norris confirmed this in a Dec. 21, 2007, interview with Garth Materie on CBK-AM saying, “What we’re doing is we’re sending out letters of invitation to key stakeholders and then we’ve also invited a few back via email. I’m going to be meeting with some of those key stakeholders, some of my officials are going to be meeting with them as well.”

In the end it seems the government wasn’t keen on having the public call officials directly but instead wanted it to use the website, which is a one-way dialogue that offers nothing in the way of meaningful consultation.

As for groups and organizations the ministry seemed willing to meet and receive feedback only from those it invited.

What is truly disturbing is that in his speech to CUPE delegates Norris seemed to consider this approach appropriate and adequate.

The sense is that the government really doesn’t care, it simply wants to be able to say that it “consulted” with people then push its labour Bills through without any major changes.

Norris talked of amendments to the Bill but did not say what they were nor did he discuss the regulations that will be coming down the pike at some point. There will of course be no public consultation on these. Cabinet will development these behind closed doors and force them on the public later.

Again, one must give Norris some credit for at least showing up and taking the heat. But unfortunately, what he had to say did not inspire confidence or instill trust in his government.


At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MLT? Isn't that a NDP law firm?

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Alicia said...

Hey Larry,

I borrow this picture if you don't mind. If it's a big deal with copyrighting I'll take it down, just let me know.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger Alicia said...

oops - thought this was larry's blog at a glance... same question applies tho...


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