Originally Published by Regina Leader-Post
Author: Arthur White-Crummey
Unifor has given strike notice to SaskTel on behalf of the almost 3,000 workers it represents there, after talks broke down over what the union called an “insulting” wage offer.
Job action will begin at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 30 if a collective agreement cannot be reached by that time, according to Unifor. Both sides have agreed to further meetings, slated for Sept. 26 and 27.
SaskTel employees could be joined by as many as six other Crown-sector bargaining units, including at two SaskTel subsidiaries. Workers at SaskPower, SaskEnergy, SaskWater and the Water Security Agency are now in a legal strike position, Unifor confirmed Thursday.
The union said members at all four of those Crowns had delivered “overwhelming” mandates in favour of a strike. The votes were counted on Thursday morning after about 10 days of balloting concluded.
Negotiations resumed at the SaskTel bargaining table on Wednesday. But Chris MacDonald, assistant to the national president of Unifor, told the Leader-Post to expect a statement later Thursday about the union’s plans.
He then confirmed the strike notice at the Delta Hotel in downtown Regina, where negotiations were taking place. The strike notice was delivered shortly after 2 p.m., and SaskTel confirmed it had received it.
SaskTel spokeswoman Michelle Englot said no details had been provided on the nature of the threatened job action.
“It remains business as usual until the nature of the labour disruption is known,” Englot wrote in an email response.
The latest round of negotiations produced mixed results. Unifor pointed to some progress on non-monetary items but said wages remain a “sticking point.” The union has refused to accept a monetary offer that it said includes wage freezes for two years followed by a slim hike in 2021.
MacDonald repeated a criticism he has made throughout bargaining, saying that the offer is a government “mandate” that SaskTel management seem stuck with. It is roughly in line to similar offers made to health sector unions.
“The last couple of days we made some inroads in terms of some of our non-monetary issues, but generally the larger issues remain outstanding as it relates to contracting out, as it relates to, of course, the mandate from the government, those things remain virtually unchanged,” he said. “And so we’re at an impasse.”
Unifor’s SaskTel members endorsed a strike mandate in July. It would have expired on Friday, lending greater urgency to the notice. Bargaining through a federal mediator failed in August.
The most recent round of bargaining was slated to take place over three days, ending on Friday.
The strike mandates cover somewhere between 4,300 and 4,400 workers across the seven Crowns. The other bargaining units have not yet given strike notice, but MacDonald has warned about what a strike across the Crown sector would look like and the disruption it could cause.
Finance Minister Donna Harpauer noted the the “potential” for job action, but pointed to business continuity plans that will see managers stepping in to pick up the slack from workers. She also pointed to legislation that will “ensure that essential services continue to be provided to the people of Saskatchewan.”
SaskTel is federally regulated and is not subject to the province’s own essential services legislation. But SaskTel vice president Darcee Macfarlane said similar requirements exist in the Canada Labour Code.
“SaskTel and Unifor have signed a memorandum of agreement to ensure emergency services such as 911, Police, Fire, Ambulances, Hospitals, etc. are maintained during a labour disruption,” Macfarlane said.
MacDonald said bargaining units at the other Crowns will make decisions next week about the steps to come. He noted that there is a 48-hour requirement for notice of a work stoppage under the provincial code.
Englot said SaskTel remains committed to working with Unifor toward a new agreement.
Premier Scott Moe has also expressed faith in the bargaining process and said he hopes to see a negotiated deal that benefits both shareholders and all people of Saskatchewan, who he pointed out are the shareholders of SaskTel.
Jerry Dias, Unifor’s national president, criticized Moe directly in a press release. He took aim at a cost-of-living increase for MLAs.
“Scott Moe is steering Saskatchewan towards a major service disruption,” said Dias. “All because he refuses to grant Crown workers the same pay increase that he gave himself.”
Dias is expected to come to Regina next week to make further announcements about what the union expects. As MacDonald sat in the Delta Hotel, his criticisms focussed on what he frames as intransigence from the highest levels of government.
“How is it that you handcuff Crown corporations that provide up to $400 million worth of money into the coffers of the Saskatchewan government?” he asked. “How is it that you handcuff them with zeros?
“I think it’s insulting.”
But Harpauer said the government encourages both parties to negotiate in good faith.
“We respect the collective bargaining process, including the right to strike,” she said.