A union representing more than 1,700 SaskPower workers has told the province it will not accept lower wages.

Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers voted 80 per cent against accepting a contract that would lower their overall compensation by 3.5 per cent, followed by three years with no wage increases.

Earlier this year, Saskatchewan's finance minister said compensation for public sector workers would be cut in order to balance the provincial budget.

"At this point we're hoping to get back to the table and achieve a fair memorandum of agreement that can be supported by our membership," said Jason Tibbs, the business manager for IBEW Local 2067.

The electrical workers' contract expired on Dec.31, 2016.

Jason Tibbs IBEW 2076

'At this point we're hoping to get back to the table and achieve a fair memorandum of agreement that can be supported by our membership,' said Jason Tibbs, the business manager for IBEW Local 2067. (Submitted by IBEW Local 2067)

They work in power line transmission and distribution, safety, metering services, and at power plants.

Union members said they and SaskPower believe in keeping the lights on while both sides try to reach an agreement matters.

"It does or we probably would have had pitchforks out by now," Tibbs said. "I don't think anybody's had to negotiate a contract that had so many cuts."

IBEW is the first public-sector union in Saskatchewan to officially reject a contract with the province's mandate to roll back wages at the negotiating table.

Tibbs said turnout was higher than usual for the ratification vote on Oct. 16.

"SaskPower is committed to returning back to the negotiation table. We will work together on amendments to negotiate a new deal," the company said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

In its own statement, the Government of Saskatchewan said the employers and unions should work together to reach compensation reduction target. 

"Our government will continue to support our employers in their efforts towards reaching agreements with their unions that will achieve the goal of a 3.5 per cent reduction in overall compensation levels, which has already been taken by cabinet ministers, MLAs, political staff, and ministry and Crown heads," the statement reads. 

In its first-quarter financial report, the government acknowledged that it is unlikely to achieve the $250 million in compensation savings in 2017-18 it forecast, and adjusted its forecast to $125 million.

'1st major test' of wage-rollback mandate

The president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour called this "the first major test" of the Sask. Party government's mandate to roll back wages by 3.5 per cent, then freeze them in subsequent years.

"If it wasn't clear before, it should be now — it is highly unlikely any worker will allow the Sask. Party government to pickpocket their hard-earned wages," said Larry Hubich in an e-mail sent to CBC.

Hubich said a number of other unionized workers, notably in health care and at other Crown corporations, are also trying to negotiate new collective agreements. 

He urged them to follow the electrical workers' lead.

"Working people did not cause the Sask. Party government's ballooning deficit and growing debt," Hubich said.

"The Sask. Party's mismanagement, scandal and waste caused their financial mess — including lavish privatization schemes like the privatized bypass around Regina and other P3 arrangements."

SaskPower, unionized workers hope to return to negotiations soon 

In 1998, SaskPower locked out IBEW workers. At the time, Roy Romanow's NDP government passed a back-to-work order forcing electrical workers back onto the job.

This time, Tibbs said both sides hope to resolve their differences without job action.

"We're working with the employer through options to meet the government's requirements," he said.

SaskPower IBEW 2067 workers in Saskatoon

Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers took part in a SaskPower Safety Days event earlier this fall in Saskatoon. More than 1,700 members took part in October's ratification vote. (Facebook)

"[SaskPower] has been as supportive in trying to achieve a memorandum as I've ever seen because it's important to them to have labour peace; they don't want to see a disruption with all the work we have going on," Tibbs said.

The last time members of IBEW Local 2067 went on strike was more than 40 years ago, as they fought a proposed rollback to wage increases.