Working It Out

SFL president Larry Hubich surveys the state of Saskatchewan’s labour force

The Labour Day Report | by Stephen Whitworth

This September, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour’s Larry Hubich will celebrate his final Labour Day as the organization’s president. Here are his thoughts on a few of the major issues facing the province’s 100,000 SFL members and Saskatchewan workers generally. This interview took place Friday, Aug. 24 and has been edited for length.

What are the biggest challenges facing Saskatchewan workers?

The government is making it very difficult for workers in this environment of low commodity prices and low resource prices. Instead of adopting a stimulus approach to the Saskatchewan economy, the current government is taking a path of austerity. If you look across the nation, when governments have gone the austerity [route], workers and citizens have suffered; while where you see governments adopting a more proactive approach to stimulating the economy through investing in human capital, those economies are doing much better.

I think that’s a really big challenge for workers: trying to keep up with the increased cost of living they’re experiencing against a backdrop of austerity. Because when governments impose austerity, the hawks in the corporate community tend to follow that lead.

Right.

So not only are workers in the public sector struggling, workers in the private sector are struggling as well. And that just replicates itself through the entire economy.

What’s one investment you’d like the Saskatchewan government to immediately make to stimulate the economy and help workers?

They could invest in our crown corporations. I’m talking about investing in new technologies [and] forward-looking generation of energy. Certainly we want to support our energy sector workers but we need a multi-faceted approach to our economy as opposed to putting all of our eggs in the same basket — which appears to be where this current government is headed. If it’s not going to benefit the corporate sector that finances their political party, they’re not interested in it.

They’re giving away our public assets, like our publically owned and beneficial liquor stores. They’re privatizing by stealth a whole host of services in the health care sector, when they could be investing in the public infrastructure necessary to have a strong public health care system. Those are just a couple of things.

Saskatchewan doesn’t have to be the outlier on things like national pharmacare. [The government] could be leading the way. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour so that instead of being the worst minimum wage in Canada we could be the first minimum wage in Canada. Wouldn’t that be novel! Despite the arguments and fear-mongering [from] various corporate lobby groups and business organizations, when you increase the minimum wage you actually stimulate the economy and create additional jobs.

I’m glad you mentioned that since we have a huge feature on minimum wage this issue. Speaking of minimum wages and privatized liquor store jobs, do you see any solutions to the disconnect between a business community that sometimes doesn’t seem to understand how well-paid workers fuel its success?

The [part of the] corporate sector with a respectful and mature relationship with their unionized workforce knows that a well-paid workforce with increased purchasing power is beneficial to both their company and the community in which they operate, but the lure of satisfying shareholders — and trying to do what they were taught in their university master of business administration classes by ensuring that the workers are paid as low as possible — sometimes gets them in trouble, and their ideology trumps their good common sense.

I don’t know how you fix that disconnect, except that government has a role to play through real, meaningful and substantive tripartite tables for dialogue. And this current government actually destroyed the tables we had when they were first elected, because they were an ideological government that thinks the way you move things forward is to strip away the rights of the most vulnerable and handing control over to corporations.

When you’re accused of being ideological do you ever feel like it’s ironic coming from people who aren’t perhaps fully aware how ideological they are?

Yeah, I mean there’s no question what I do. I’ve been elected. I’m not a CEO who was appointed or hired by a board of directors or a group of shareholders to run the business and drive the bottom line. I was elected by workers and their organizations to advocate on behalf of workers. Sometimes they confuse the democratic process of electing leadership to advocate on your behalf with their corporate model, which is often laced with patronage — it’s not really what you know, but who you know. Those individuals, and their organizations, groups and mouthpieces who accuse duly elected labour leaders of being ideological… they’re more ideological than any of us could ever dream to be.

You’re off to the SFL’s Summer Camp to meet the next generation of Saskatchewan workers. What kind of things will you be doing in the next week?

We’re going to bring in a number of folks from our Indigenous community to share the experiences and talk about reconciliation. We’re going to negotiate a collective agreement with the campers, which we do every year, that sets out the terms and conditions of our camp, like when lights-out is, what time sessions are, when you can go to the beach and all those kinds of things. It’s our 30th summer camp, so we’ve been doing this for a long time.