Sask. unions form coalition to square off with Crowns

Modest wage increases offset by monetary concessions for ‘net-zero’, unions claim

Unions representing workers at Saskatchewan’s Crown corporations say they’re being offered what amounts to a “net-zero” contract, and they’ve formed a coalition to seek better terms for more than 9,000 employees at SGI, SaskPower, SaskEnergy and SaskTel.

COPE, CEP and IBEW recently banded together to share information and express their frustration with the current collective bargaining by forming a coalition dubbed the “Common Front.”

Garry Hamblin, a spokesman for the group and president at COPE, says the government seems intent on wage increases in the Crown sector of 1.5 per cent, two per cent and two per cent. He calls this “galling” given the organizations’ recent profits.

Hamblin notes that the Crowns generated more than $700 million for the provincial treasury last year. At the same time, he says the average wage rose by five per cent. He says it’s not unreasonable for employees to expect more.

“The Crowns are a roaring success. We want to see recognition for their workers who made them a success in the form of a decent wage increase,” he says.

Hamblin adds the Crowns are adding further insult to workers by tying wage increases to demands for concessions in other parts of the collective agreement, which would effectively negate the wage gains.

For example, Hamblin says SGI would like to eliminate money for education over and above tuition costs, as well as the provision that allows for time off during work hours to take courses. At SaskTel, he says there has been discussion of eliminating earned days off.

“It’s not about what’s being taken away though, but that they’re taking it away at all,” he says.

In the past, Hamblin says the Crowns have had more leeway to bargain with each union separately but that has changed. He says Crown Investments Corporation (CIC) — the holding company for the province’s commercial Crowns — is now “calling the shots.”

“The CIC is controlling them very tightly,” he says, adding the Crowns are now using a “cookie cutter” approach to bargaining.

“It doesn’t take into account individual profitability. We’re making the same as government workers who don’t earn a profit for the government. We’re the ones who earn a profit for the government,” he says.

Mike Woods, executive director of communications for CIC, disagrees there is a “one-size” approach. He says every employer considers three distinct elements in bargaining. One is maintaining employee purchasing power. Another is market conditions for certain jobs where individual classifications have been shown to be hard to recruit and where wages lag behind the relevant market. The final is wages.

“Employers are prepared to provide compensation for changes to the collective agreement that result in demonstrable cost reductions to the employer,” he says.

Hamblin says that ultimately amounts to net-zero even if that’s not what it’s being called. He adds that the negotiations are taking place in a different climate this time around as a result of the province of Saskatchewan introducing essential services legislation almost three years ago.

“It’s a cloud that hangs over negotiations,” he says. “There’s very little movement. There’s no incentive. They know they can crush us.”

Hamblin says each union is at a different stage of negations so they will not, in this round of bargaining, proceed with a single bargaining position for all members. However, he says that could happen in the future.

Woods won’t comment on what impact the coalition could have on negotiations.

“We believe the best agreement is one that is reached directly between the parties at the bargaining table,” says Woods.

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