On November 16, 1979, Saskatchewan labour history was made when 12,000 public employees, members of the Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Association (SGEA—now the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union) started a general walkout that was to last four weeks. This was the province’s largest and longest strike at the time; it would change SGEA from a social club/lobby group into a vital and modern trade union. Saskatchewan was the first province in Canada to allow public employees the right to join trade unions, to strike, and to obligate their employer to bargain with them in good faith. The left-wing government of T.C. Douglas and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), elected in 1944, passed ground- breaking legislation with the Trade Union Act that was declared that same year. The SGEA at the time was a cautious and conservative organization which reflected its social club origins and a “loyalty to the Crown” public-servant mentality.
Despite these new rights, provincial government employees did not exercise their right to strike until the mid-1970s, when sporadic strikes were taken to address long- standing issues on working conditions, hours of work ,and low pay. These issues came to a head in 1979 when government intransigence on these issues resulted in a positive strike vote. New, younger members brought up in the turbulent 1960s were entering the growing public sector in Saskatchewan and were challenging the established leadership of the Association. Concerns that the leadership of the Association had regarding the strength of the membership were overcome when SGEA members overwhelmingly walked out and remained solid during a very long and cold four weeks. The strike appeared to be on the verge of great success through the solidarity of the membership, and it was hoped that the conciliator involved would recommend substantial movement on many of the outstanding issues, some of which had been of concern for decades.
However, the strike was brought to an unexpected halt when a small group of SGEA members successfully convinced a Provincial Court judge to declare the strike illegal and order the employees back to work. The rationale used was that while a majority of members who voted had supported strike action, the number who voted in favour of job action was less than 50% of the entire membership. A frustrated membership returned to work, aware that most sitting MLAs would not be in the legislature if this voting criterion had applied to them. Despite the court order, substantial gains such as the concept of earned days off were made as a result of the strike. The strike also forged a strong leadership and an active membership that would abandon its social club roots. SGEA changed its name in 1981 to become the Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Union.