Business Manager Jason Tibbs said Regina, Saskatchewan, Local 2067 has had a non-adversarial relationship with the conservative provincial legislature for the last several years. The relationship with SaskPower, its largest employer, has been a good one.
That made it a little awkward when provincial leaders called for a 3.5 percent reduction in public sector worker pay earlier this year to cut into a $1.2 billion budget deficit.
“It’s a distraction,” Tibbs said.
But Tibbs and those around him didn’t overreact. In October, Local 2067 became the first Saskatchewan public workers union to vote down a proposed wage cut since the government made its request. It rejected a proposal from SaskPower, but negotiations continue and both sides are determined to reach a fair agreement, he said.
About 80 percent of the 1,700 Local 2067 members employed by SaskPower voted against the proposal, which also included no raises for the next three years. Being the first union to vote down a contract briefly put Tibbs and his members in the spotlight. He sat for an interview with the CBC.
But now, he hopes to negotiate a new contract outside of the public glare. Local 2067 members have been working without one at SaskPower since Dec. 31, 2016, but they have seen a 67 percent increase in total compensation during the last 10 years, Tibbs said. The company also has added about 300 employees covered by the agreement during that period, he said.
“We’re hoping to draw as little attention as possible to ourselves and our bargaining units,” he said.
The move also was applauded by other unions, who said it inspired the labour movement and encouraged provincial leaders to back off the plan. Indeed, Saskatchewan Finance Minister Donna Harpauer told reporters the government’s original request “doesn’t look promising.”
“If we had said no, we’re not going to bargain under these conditions, I am sure we would have seen legislation [from the provincial legislature] forcing the cuts,” Tibbs said. “But now, we’re not seeing any desire to do that.
“When government spending gets out of control and deficits are going up, one of the things they like to tout is fiscal management. They think if they make the story big enough and get the unions into a fight, they’ll sway the public’s perception and people won’t look at the books.”
Premier Brad Wall, who is leaving his post this month after nearly 11 years, originally made the proposal to cut wages last March. He added that he would respect the collective bargaining process and that any cuts for union-represented workers would have to be negotiated.
Labour leaders pushed back, saying that cuts should not be on the backs of working families and suggested renegotiating contracts built with public-private partnerships. Even though Tibbs downplayed the significance of Local 2067’s vote, other Saskatchewan labour leaders praised it.
“If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now,” Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, told the CBC. “It is highly unlikely any worker will allow the Saskatchewan Party government to pickpocket their hard-earned wages.”
The Saskatchewan Party has been the province’s governing party since 2007 and controls 49 of the legislature’s 61 seats. It is not officially aligned with any national political party, but many provincial legislators are members of the Conservative Party, and most observers consider it to have a conservative philosophy.
“On a number of occasions, conservative members have stood up on the floor and commended the work our brothers and sisters have done,” Tibbs said.
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