WATCH ABOVE: Global’s Mike McKinnon reports on the wide implications of Friday’s ruling
OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Friday a Saskatchewan law that prevents public sector employees from striking is unconstitutional.
In a 5-2 decision, the high court has granted an appeal by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour of the province’s controversial Public Service Essential Services Act, which limits the ability of employees designated as “essential services” from striking.
Writing for the majority, Justice Rosalie Abella said that the legislation violates a section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing freedom of association, including the right to access collective bargaining.
The Court called the ability to strike the “powerhouse” of collective bargaining.
FULL RULING: Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan
“The ability to engage in the collective withdrawal of services in the process of the negotiation of a collective agreement is therefore, and has historically been, the ‘irreducible minimum’ of the freedom to associate in Canadian labour relations,” Abella wrote.
The court gives Saskatchewan one year to amend the legislation or enact a new one.
The ruling is important to how public service unions operate in provinces across the country and may change how governments go about creating labour legislation.
The two dissenting justices, Richard Wagner and Marshall Rothstein, said protecting the right to strike impedes the government’s flexibility in labour disputes and favours the interest of employees over employers and the public.
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the ruling will force government’s to craft much more careful legislation to stop essential workers from striking, compared to the “much more cavalier” approach it has taken in the past.
“The government needs to take a great deal of care if they’re going to intervene to interrupt that right of workers,” said Yussuff.
Lori Johb, of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, said workers aren’t generally keen to strike.
“Without that right, we really had no power, we had no ability to achieve fair, collective bargaining for all the members,” she said.
The Saskatchewan government enacted the PSESA in 2007, which says employers and unions must agree on which workers are essential and cannot legally strike. If the two sides disagree, the government gets the final say on who is an essential worker.
The law came as a result of a few high-profile labour strikes in Saskatchewan, including a strike by highway workers and correctional officers in late 2006 and early 2007.
Labour groups challenged this in 2008, and theRegina Court of Queen’s Bench ruled in favour of labour groups.
The PSESA was struck down as unconstitutional in 2012, with the court saying it impeded employees’ right to strike, which was protected under the Charter. The ruling was suspended and the government was given one year to amend the legislation.
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal overturned the original ruling,so it was appealed to the Supreme Court, which has now reversed that appeal.
This ruling comes just two weeks after the Supreme Court’s landmark labour relations ruling in a case involving rank-and-file officers of the RCMP.
The Court overturned its own ruling from a case in the 1990s that barred Mounties from forming unions like federal public servants.
While the ruling did not explicitly state the RCMP members have the right to form a union, it essentially cleared the way for that possibility.
– with files from The Canadian Press