Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Saskatchewan Party & Canadian Federation of Independent Business: Tax cuts, deregulation, attacking the Crowns and labour

“My party has had a very good relationship with your organization through the years and that will absolutely not change under my leadership. The position the CFIB puts forward, for the most, reflect our own.”
– Brad Wall, Saskatchewan Party Leader, in a March 31, 2004 letter to Marilyn Braun-Pollon, Director, Provincial Affairs Saskatchewan, Canadian Federation of Independent Business

“I encourage you to urge business owners to participate in our “Stop the Job Killing Monster” Campaign which can [be] accessed on our website…I would also like to offer my cooperation and any resources which may be of assistance to the Saskatchewan Business Council in opposing this policy of government directed hours.”
– Brad Wall, Saskatchewan Party Leader, in a December 14, 2004 letter to Marilyn Braun-Pollon, Director, Provincial Affairs Saskatchewan, Canadian Federation of Independent Business

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) was formed in 1971 as an advocacy organization for small- and medium-sized enterprises. It represents over 105,000 member businesses across Canada, with approximately 5,250 members in Saskatchewan. The alleged non-partisan lobby group says it is determined to promote free enterprise, and prevent abuse of power by government agencies, public service monopolies, corporate giants and trade unions.

The CFIB’s Saskatchewan office kicked off its last provincial election campaign on April 22, 2003, with the release of a pre-election platform called Fixing the Fundamentals – A Business Plan for Saskatchewan. The report, according to the news release, “examines each of the major policy areas that impact the economy and offers solutions that will benefit the well-being of the province.”

“As we prepare for the upcoming provincial election, CFIB hopes that its pre-election document will serve as a guide to constructive actions that the future government can take to encourage jobs and growth in the small business sector,” stated Marilyn Braun-Pollon, CFIB’s Saskatchewan director of provincial affairs and author of the report.

Saskatchewan remains a province with significant potential, but, for many years, has struggled to capitalize on opportunities for growth and prosperity,” noted Braun-Pollon.

“What is needed is an entrepreneurial vision for Saskatchewan and a significant change in direction.”

Besides massive tax cuts, deregulation and axing public service jobs and government ministries, the CFIB’s demands also included Crown asset sales and privatization and “a total re-thinking of labour policy in Saskatchewan”.

(It is interesting to note that the CFIB report states that “cutting taxes does not mean endangering social programs” but only named health and education as being “valued”.)

The CFIB recommended the following action on Crown corporations:

– Conduct a review of role, mandate and structure of each Crown corporation, including an examination of privatization.

– Introduce legislation that requires all proceeds from privatization be applied directly to Saskatchewan’s debt.

– Introduce legislation to prohibit direct public sector investment in new or existing businesses.

– Examine and cease all cases of unfair government competition with the private sector.

– Privatize the retail sale and distribution of alcohol.

The CFIB report states that the current NDP government’s “pro-union policy framework…has failed both job creators and employees alike.” To “promote fair and balanced labour laws” the CFIB recommended the following sweeping changes:

Trade Union Act:

– Introduce a secret ballot vote in all union certification attempts.

– Ensure equivalent standards for regulation of employer and union speech, especially in the context of union organization. Enhance the employer’s ability to communicate with employees in a certification drive.

– Create equal access for employees to certification and decertification.

– Remove successor rights legislation that negatively impacts investment opportunities.

Labour Standards Act:

– Require employees to give notice to the employer before quitting a job, as employers are required to give employees.

– Develop greater flexibility around hours of work and overtime – such as the ability to trade overtime for time off on a 1:1 basis.

– Allow employers and employees to agree to allocate statutory holidays in a manner that best suits their own needs.

– Introduce a “training wage” under the minimum wage law for the first 6 months of employment and introduce a tiered system for those employees earning gratuities.

– Reduce the 3-hour minimum call-in rule to 2 hours.

– Remove part-time benefits provisions (which includes unproclaimed section of the Act outlining seniority rights and available hours for part-time workers).

Labour Relations Board:

– Create a more balanced climate at the Labour Relations Board.

– Ensure a more open and transparent process of selecting the Chair, Vice-Chair and members of the Board.

Construction Industry Labour Relations Act:

– Repeal the Act.

Safety Rules:

– Seek innovative ways to promote and enforce safety measures without creating a system of administrative fines.

According to Braun-Pollon, “Saskatchewan needs a vision of labour laws that will take us into the future, not one that seeks to resurrect policies of the past.” Ironically, the CFIB’s “vision” of the future would actually see labour laws going back in time.

Reaction to the CFIB’s aggressive plan was swift. In an April 23, 2003, news release Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich said “In almost every federal or provincial budget in the last two decades there have been tax cuts for business, along with legislative amendments that cater to the constant complaining of corporate lobbyists. But it is never enough for this crowd. They continually run down their employees and their country and their province. If anyone is contributing to out migration from the province of Saskatchewan it’s groups like the CFIB. If they want to keep skilled workers here they should start being positive about Saskatchewan. This province is a great place to live, and Saskatchewan working people are the best employees anywhere.”

In CFIB unveils gov’t proposals; SFL suggests labour boycott (Leader-Post, Apr. 23, 2003), Hubich pointed out that independent studies – like those released by the KPMG accounting firm – have shown that the cost of operating a business in Regina or Saskatoon are among the lowest in North America.

KPMG’s 2002 Competitive Alternatives study found that all Canadian cities, including Saskatchewan’s four major centres, ranked at the top in terms of competitiveness when measured against the overall cost of doing business in U.S., Japanese and European cities.

The study found that of the nine countries surveyed Canada was the overall leader with a cost index of 85.5. This represented a 14.5 per cent cost advantage over the United States. Regina (85.3), Saskatoon (84.9), Prince Albert (83.4) and Moose Jaw (83.6) all ranked better than the Canadian average.

The rankings of Saskatchewan’s two largest cities were competitive with Calgary (85.0) and were ahead of the major centres of Toronto (87.9), Vancouver (88.2) and Winnipeg (86.4).

KPMG’s 2006 Competitive Alternatives study showed that Saskatoon, Regina, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw all scored well in a survey on the cost of doing business in cities across North America and around the world.

Saskatoon was ranked the lowest cost jurisdiction among 21 featured cities from the North American Midwest, moving up from a second-place ranking in the previous survey (2004) and relegating Edmonton to second.

In a comparison with all 98 North American cities Moose Jaw placed fifth, Prince Albert sixth, Saskatoon 21st, and Regina 28th. KPMG ranked all cities on the basis of costs for labour, taxation, facilities (land, construction, leasing rates), transportation, utilities, depreciation and financing.

In March 2007, the Canada West Foundation predicted “Saskatchewan will remain one of the fastest growing economies in Canada and, along with Alberta and British Columbia, will continue to secure its position as one of western Canada’s economic powerhouses.”

The CWF noted Saskatchewan should enjoy its fifth consecutive year of strong real GDP growth in 2007 at 3.3% – well above the national average.

Despite the good news the CFIB continued to complain and the Saskatchewan Party more than willing to entertain a good number of its demands.

On Monday, October 20, 2003, then Saskatchewan Party Leader Elwin Hermanson held an election campaign press conference in the yard of Diamond Energy Services Inc. an oilfield service company headquartered in Swift Current. The week was designated Small Business Week in the province.

In Small business a priority (Leader-Post, Oct. 21, 2003), Hermanson said that under a Saskatchewan Party government “every week in Saskatchewan would be small business week.”

Hermanson, a native of Beechy, vowed to make Saskatchewan the first “small business tax-free zone” in Canada. He also said the corporate capital tax on investment would be cut in half and there would be a “government efficiency review” to clear away waste in the system.

To speed up the regulatory process for businesses, Hermanson said no extra staff would be required. The current staff in the Economic and Cooperative Development Department would simply be reassigned.

Interestingly, prior to joining the CFIB in June 1997, Braun-Pollon, also from Beechy, served as a sector specialist with Saskatchewan Economic and Co-operative Development. [Braun wants lower taxes, Leader-Post, July 9, 1997]

In his Oct. 15, 2003, response to the CFIB 2003 Leaders’ Survey on Small Business Issues, Hermanson said a Saskatchewan Party government would “launch a comprehensive Government Efficiency Review of every program, department, board, agency, commission and Crown Corporation.”

“The Saskatchewan Party believes that the provincial government should not be competing directly against Saskatchewan’s business community. The Saskatchewan Party further believes that Saskatchewan’s Crown sector should be refocused to providing those core services they were intended to provide,” said Hermanson.

On the issue of promoting fair and balanced labour laws Hermanson said the Saskatchewan Party would address the Trade Union Act by introducing “a secret ballot for all certification and decertification votes in the province.” The party would “also ensure that both union organizers and employers will have equal ability to communicate with workers prior to any such vote while at the same time protecting employees from coercion from either side.” Changes to successor rights legislation was not part of the Saskatchewan Party platform.

As for the Labour Standards Act, Hermanson said his party would “work closely with both employers and employee on matters pertaining to notice, flexibility of hours and flexibility of statutory holidays. Any changes would have to be shown to be beneficial to both workers and employers.” A training wage was not part of the current Saskatchewan Party platform nor was a reduction in the three-hour minimum call-in.

Hermanson also noted that the Saskatchewan Party “supports repealing the unproclaimed sections of the Act outlining seniority rights and available hours provisions for part-time employees which the NDP passed in 1993 but have never proclaimed.”

“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,” said Hermanson.

Hermanson also said his party would review the Construction Industry Relations Act and “supports finding innovative ways to promote greater safety in a way that will not unnecessarily hinder business development and growth in Saskatchewan.”

Neither the Saskatchewan Party nor the CFIB acknowledge the fact that during the last major review of The Trade Union Act in 1992-93, a committee composed of equal representation from organized labour and employer organizations and chaired by University of Saskatchewan law professor Daniel Ish held four days of public hearings in Regina and Saskatoon in order to develop fair and reasonable proposals for a balanced industrial relations law. The committee heard 11 presentations from organized labour, 17 from employers and business organizations and two from individuals. The committee received 63 written briefs: 16 from organized labour, 34 from employers, business organizations and religious groups and 13 from individuals.

(It should be noted that similar input was sought and received when The Labour Standards Act, The Occupational Health and Safety Act and The Workers’ Compensation Act were amended.)

The CFIB, along with the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Manufacturing Association, the Saskatchewan Construction Association, the Saskatchewan Mining Association, the Prairie Implement Manufacturers Association and the Saskatchewan Health Care Association, nominated the four employer representatives on the committee.

During the review the committee carefully considered the issue of representation votes and concluded the process was fair and recommended that the current provision not be changed.

Under The Trade Union Act employers remain empowered to communicate with employees, unless such communications interfere with an employee’s right to unionize.

According to Labour act report released (Leader-Post, Dec. 22, 1993), when the committee was unable to reach a consensus the then Labour Minister, Ned Shillington, established a labour-management committee in an attempt to mediate differences on the outstanding issues.

The second bi-partisan committee was chaired by Ted Priel, a Saskatoon lawyer with extensive experience as a labour arbitrator.

On April 14, 1994, Shillington reported in the legislature that the “committee was able to reach agreement on approximately 60 per cent of the issues” and “since then we have been able to add to the success of the Priel committee in other signs of a more cooperative atmosphere in labour relations in this province.”

In the end Saskatchewan did not cease to exist and thirteen years later, as noted above, is one of the fastest growing economies in Canada.

In his June 1993 report to Shillington, Ish said his recommendations were “premised on the view, virtually universally accepted today, that workers’ rights to bargain collectively and to organize for that purpose without interference must be ensured by the governing legislation. It is the workers who determine whether they want to organize and bargain collectively; it is solely their prerogative to make this determination.”

Ish made the interesting observation that “The Trade Union Act has become a highly politicized piece of legislation, often used as a tool of political change. More often than not, a change in government has been accompanied by significant changes to the Act in response to that government’s particular political agenda.”

Enter Brad Wall, the Saskatchewan Party MLA from Swift Current.

Wall became leader of the Official Opposition Saskatchewan Party on March 15, 2004. He replaced Elwin Hermanson, who resigned after leading the party to defeat in the 2003 provincial election. Shortly after his victory was announced Wall restated his call for a sweeping policy review by the party. He also wasted little time in reconfirming his support for the CFIB.

In a March 31, 2004, letter to Marilyn Braun-Pollon, Wall wrote:
“Thanks so much for your kind words on my election as Leader of the Saskatchewan Party and Leader of the Official Opposition.

“My party has had a very good relationship with your organization through the years and that will absolutely not change under my leadership. The position the CFIB puts forward, for the most, reflect our own.

“I would be delighted to meet with you to discuss your issues. I would ask that you contact Terri Harris in our office at 787-4300. I am sure a date can be arranged in the near future.

“Thank you once again for your congratulations.”
With Wall’s letter one might be hard pressed to find better evidence that so starkly illustrates the Saskatchewan Party’s pro-business bias. It wouldn’t be Wall’s last letter to Braun-Pollon either.

On September 21, 2004, Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall released his economic vision for Saskatchewan in an address to more than 200 students at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Commerce.

The Promise of Saskatchewan: A New Vision for Saskatchewan’s Economy is a 37-page document that details Wall’s plan for restructuring Saskatchewan’s economy and removing the government’s role in economic development.

Central to Wall’s “vision” is the establishment of a partnership called Enterprise Saskatchewan. According to the plan the new economic development agency will replace “the economic development function currently resident in the Department of Industry and Natural Resources.”

Under Enterprise Saskatchewan the government “will cede significant control over the formation and implementation of economic development strategies to a broad partnership of economic stakeholders with the full support of the Premier and Executive Council.”

“Enterprise Saskatchewan will…ensure that industry groups, local governments, First Nations, post-secondary institutions, labour and economic development bodies such as Agrivision and the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce are part of the strategic planning, implementation, governance and monitoring of the Enterprise Saskatchewan Plan,” Wall states on page eight.

“Its board will represent both government and the aforementioned partners, with the chairperson coming from the non-government members of the board.”

“Rather than taking direction from government” Wall’s non-elected Enterprise Saskatchewan partners “will establish provincial economic development goals and strategies for endorsement by Cabinet and the Legislature. Government departments; agencies and, in some cases, Crown corporations, will then be tasked with implementing these strategies.”

One of Enterprise Saskatchewan’s key functions will be to “develop a systematic and ongoing process to identify and remove barriers to growth in each of our key economic sectors.”

Wall’s plan, however, appears to torpedo the board’s mandate and credibility before it even gets started by pre-determining in its terms of reference what the alleged barriers are and what outcomes are to be expected.

In a speech delivered to the North Saskatoon Business Association on December 8, 2005, Wall said “Non-negotiable and foundational to the terms of reference given to Enterprise Saskatchewan will be changes to labour legislation to ensure that it is fair to workers and employers, as well as competitive with other jurisdictions. Secret ballot certification and freedom of information in the work place are changes we will make.”

“New growth tax incentives will also be part of the terms of reference for Enterprise Saskatchewan” as will “the end of government picking winners and losers in the economy,” Wall said.

“These initiatives are non-negotiable and are hard wired right into Enterprise Saskatchewan. Legislative changes where necessary will be readied for the first Legislative session.”

The Saskatchewan Party and CFIB often complain that the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board lacks openness and transparency, particularly the process of selecting the Chair, Vice-Chair and members of the Board.

The same can certainly be said about Wall’s Enterprise Saskatchewan.

To date the Saskatchewan Party has not released the complete terms of reference for Enterprise Saskatchewan or clearly explained the process of how its chair, vice-chair and members of the board will be selected.

References to the exact make-up of the Enterprise Saskatchewan board are sprinkled throughout Saskatchewan Party documents, news releases and newspaper articles. To date no definitive list has been provided. In examining the information that is available it appears that the Enterprise Saskatchewan board will be comprised of representatives from at least the following:

Business/Small business
Organized Labour
First Nations
Local governments
Post-secondary institutions
Industry groups
Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce
Stakeholders from government
Regional economic development authorities
Non-profit and institutional sectors
Other economic stakeholders

Wall’s Enterprise Saskatchewan board, while trying to give the appearance of being inclusive and pragmatic, is unbalanced and appears to be little more than a smokescreen that favours business and industry. The criticism leveled at the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board by the likes of the Saskatchewan Party and CFIB is hypocritical to say the least.

On December 10, 2004, Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall’s constituency office faxed a letter to the newly formed Saskatchewan Business Council (SBC) in care of the CFIB’s Marilyn Braun-Pollon, requesting a meeting between the SBC and members of the Saskatchewan Party Caucus, including Wall, on Friday, December 17 in Saskatoon.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the provincial government’s “proposal to impose government-directed hours on Saskatchewan businesses.”

Judging by the letter’s content its clear the request for a meeting between the parties was initiated by the Saskatchewan Party, which serves to bolster the perception that it harbours a pro-business bias.

It’s interesting to note that in the letter Wall states that the government’s proposal “will badly damage Saskatchewan’s reputation as a business-friendly environment.” This is significant because it shows that, at least privately, Wall readily admits that Saskatchewan is a friendly place to do business but seems to prefer saying the opposite in public.

Just four days later, on December 14, 2004, Wall sent yet another letter to Braun-Pollon, this time thanking her for adding her voice “to those opposing the policy of government directed hours.”

“It is my belief that if we work together, we can defeat this insane labour policy,” Wall said.

The letter goes on to say “I encourage you to urge business owners to participate in our “Stop the Job Killing Monster” Campaign which can [be] accessed on our website…I would also like to offer my cooperation and any resources which may be of assistance to the Saskatchewan Business Council in opposing this policy of government directed hours.”

So it would appear that the Saskatchewan Party not only set out to meet and recruit the likes of the SBC and CFIB, its leader even offered them whatever “resources” they may have needed to help defeat the government’s directed hours proposal. The question becomes was any taxpayer money involved?

On February 6, 2005, at the Saskatchewan Party’s Annual Convention in Regina, delegates approved the party’s new policy package that was initiated by party Leader Brad Wall in March 2004. Among the things enshrined as party policy are:
– Support for The Crown Corporations Public Ownership Act but only insofar as it applies to the four major Crown corporations: SaskTel, SaskPower, SaskEnergy and SGI.

The Promise of Saskatchewan: A New Vision for Saskatchewan’s Economy as presented by Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall as the foundation for the economic development plan of a Saskatchewan Party government.

– The creation of Enterprise Saskatchewan and the removal of barriers to private sector investment in Saskatchewan’s key economic sectors.

– Ensuring Saskatchewan’s income, corporate, property and capital taxes and resource royalty rates are competitive with other provinces and do not create a barrier to increased private sector investment, job creation and economic growth.

– Eliminating the small business tax.

– Eliminating the Corporate Capital Tax and reducing the corporate income tax rate to 11.5% over four years.

– A service-based review of all government operations.

– A review of provincial government competition with the private sector through government departments, agencies and Crown corporations.

– A review of all existing out-of-province Crown business ventures and a moratorium on further out-of-province investment by Crown corporations until the review is complete.

– A complete review of provincial labour legislation and of the Labour Relations Board.
The resolutions passed, however, come with a word of warning. In Sask. Party promises changes (Leader-Post, Jan. 20, 2005), Wall acknowledged that most of the policies are general and will require further refining before being implemented. This leaves the door open for the party to consider imposing something later that it would rather the public not know about today.

It should be remembered that in his December 2005 speech to the NSBA in Saskatoon, Wall told the audience that a Saskatchewan Party government would ensure that “Legislative changes where necessary will be readied for the first Legislative session” to force the advancement of his party’s conservative agenda.

Perhaps one of the more incredible displays of bias occurred on June 22, 2006, when the Saskatoon StarPhoenix published a scathing 2,450 word “analysis” and a 710 word editorial slamming the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board and the state of labour legislation in the province in general.

In Labour board seen as biased (StarPhoenix, June 22, 2006), anti-NDP columnist Randy Burton, conveniently armed with apocalyptic surveys conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said a November 2005 survey of 365 Saskatchewan businesses revealed 82 per cent of them found Saskatchewan’s labour laws to be too pro-labour. In January 2006, 58.4 per cent of 699 businesses viewed provincial labour laws as a priority.

What Burton did not tell readers though was that the CFIB’s 2005-06 Pre-Budget Submission to the Honourable Harry Van Mulligen reported that approximately 70 per cent of the general public said they did not believe that Saskatchewan’s labour laws were too pro-labour/union.

Furthermore, the 58.4 per cent of businesses that viewed provincial labour laws as a priority was down from 69.2 per cent in July 2002. Oddly, in September 2005, only 41 per cent said that more balanced labour laws should be a government priority over the next five years. Perhaps even more puzzling is that the package of information Burton seemed to be drawing information from – Tax Reform to Get Saskatchewan Back in the Game (Jan. 24, 2006) – contained no reference to reforming labour laws in the short, medium and long term recommendations that were presented to Finance Minister Harry Van Mulligen.

Both Burton’s column and the editorial Labour bias bad for Sask. (StarPhoenix, June 22, 2006), discussed at length the “damning” 2004 ruling by Queen’s Bench Justice George Baynton that “equated the board to a union henchman in its handling of a case involving Wal-Mart.”

Burton’s column notes:
In ruling on a dispute between Wal-Mart and the United Food and Commercial Workers over access to company documents earlier this year, Baynton was unequivocal in his view of how the board operated.

He said the process was so one-sided the union won nearly every argument and even seemed to be running the process.

“Seldom as in the case before me, is a dispute or issue so one-sided that one party is successful in all of its applications while the other is successful in none,” he said.

Had this come from a player in a labour-management dispute, it would have been regarded as just another shot in an ongoing war. Coming from a judge, it made people sit up and take notice. Those who have long suspected the board of bias had all the confirmation they needed.

Baynton’s judgment in the case was later overturned by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal. It ruled the board couldn’t really decide if the union was on a “fishing trip” for information until it actually examined the documents in question.
Wall and Braun-Pollon, listed in the article as “prominent players” even though neither appeared to be directly involved in the Wal-Mart case, were naturally given the opportunity to comment on the matter.

Braun-Pollon said that while provincial corporate tax changes have been welcome, “you can undo some of the good work by not ensuring that we have a balanced labor relations board.”

Wall said the labour environment does not need to be unfair to unions or employers but needs to be competitive with other jurisdictions.

Burton and the SP editorial board neglected to inform readers that the board is a representational board. This means that all members of the board, with the exception of the chairperson and vice-chairpersons, are representatives of employees or employers. The chairperson and vice-chairpersons are neutral and are lawyers. The board reports to the Minister of Labour for the Province of Saskatchewan.

The board operates independently from the government, its departments and agencies. The chairperson, vice-chairpersons and all members of the board are required by The Trade Union Act to take an oath of impartiality in the performance of their office.

The members of the board are selected so that employers and organized employees are equally represented. Both the Saskatchewan Party and CFIB know this. In fact, the CFIB appears to participate in selecting the employer representatives on the board.

A March 9, 2004, letter posted on the CFIB website from Labour Minister Deb Higgins shows the nominating organizations include: the CFIB, the Construction Labour Relations Association of Saskatchewan Inc., the North Saskatoon Business Association, the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, the Saskatchewan Mining Association, the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour.

In Wal-Mart cries foul (StarPhoenix, June 24, 2006), it was reported that Wal-Mart didn’t think it could “get a fair hearing from the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board (SLRB), and is asking the courts to declare the board biased.”

In the motion filed in Saskatoon Court of Queen’s Bench, Wal-Mart claimed to have a “reasonable apprehension” that the board was biased. The SLRB “has and will continue to breach the rules of natural justice in failing to provide a fair hearing to the applicant.”

On July 20, 2006, Queen’s Bench Justice Frank Gerein dismissed the application from Wal-Mart Canada Corp. saying “It is alleged that there was interference with the Board and that it was required to read publications which were highly disparaging of Wal-Mart. Yet there is absolutely no evidence before this court to prove the allegations.”

In its court submissions, Wal-Mart referred to a statement of claim from Walter Matkowski, a former labour relations board member who launched a lawsuit against the government after his appointment wasn’t renewed. Matkowski said he was ousted after unions complained about his decisions. He also said board members were required to read newsletters from the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour – a union umbrella group – that were “critical and disparaging” of Wal-Mart.

Matkowski did not come forward to assert his allegations under oath.

“Without such evidence it is impossible to conclude that bias exists within the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board or that there is justification for a reasonable apprehension of bias. To conclude otherwise, this court would be acting on pure conjecture or fantasy. That is not good enough,” Gerein said.

Coming from a judge, you’d think the decision would make the StarPhoenix editorial board and columnist Randy Burton “sit up and take notice.” It didn’t. They said nothing. The only mention of the ruling was in a tiny story buried on Page A8 of the July 26, 2006, edition.

The lone meaningful print media coverage following Gerein’s ruling was by David Shield in Labour Board Bias, Or Business Lobby Bumph? (Planet S Magazine Sept. 14, 2006).

“After that, the story disappeared – along with the angry editorials holding up the accusation of bias as supposed proof the provincial government’s “anti-business” mindset. Instead, the judgment was relegated to a back page story, where it was briefly noted that the court had rejected Wal-Mart’s case – seemingly ending discussion on the matter,” Shield said.

According to Shield the Wal-Mart decision wasn’t enough to convince the CFIB that the board is fair and unbiased.

Braun-Pollon said many of her members aren’t very happy with the labour board – even though the business community has equal representation on the board.

“When we’ve asked our members, those that have dealt with the board, about half of them said they felt that they believed they weren’t given a fair opportunity to present their information during their contact with the board. The CFIB has said for quite some time that we need to create a more balanced climate at the board.”

SFL president Larry Hubich noted that the labour board’s “track record confirms that it’s not biased. In the last eight years, out of over 1,300 cases, only six labour board decisions have been overturned.” This pertinent fact didn’t make it into the StarPhoenix.

The drama, however, didn’t end with Gerein’s ruling because Wal-Mart took its case to the Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan.

On November 15, 2006, the Saskatchewan appeal court ruled that “there is no evidence of a reasonable apprehension of bias” at the labour board. The StarPhoenix failed to report it. The Saskatchewan Party and CFIB, who have had lots to say on the subject over the last few years, apparently had no comment.

With 2007 comes a provincial election and with it another pre-election document by the CFIB: The Future of Saskatchewan Survey – Small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) pre-election priorities (Sept. 2007).

“Significant progress has been made over the last year in improving Saskatchewan’s business climate. Business tax reforms are translating into increased optimism among Saskatchewan small- and medium-sized business owners. CFIB’s latest quarterly survey revealed Saskatchewan small business owners’ optimism has hit a new high.

“In fact, when asked what the impact the recent tax reductions had on their business, an astonishing 99 per cent said it was very or somewhat positive,” said Marilyn Braun-Pollon, now the CFIB’s Vice President, Saskatchewan and Agri-Business.

The good news does not appear to be enough, though.

“Tax competitiveness is not a one-time issue – Saskatchewan needs to be competitive on all of our tax rates,” Braun-Pollon said. “There is still work to be done.” Isn’t there always?

The CFIB list of demands “to assist the next government in continuing to build on Saskatchewan’s positive economic momentum” includes the usual suspects: big tax cuts, deregulation, scaling back labour laws and attacking Crown corporations.

Remedies for these and numerous other ailments that business finds annoying are ready and waiting to be implemented via the Saskatchewan Party Policy Book, which was released in February 2007. After all, what are good friends for?


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