Labour president says Sask. government looking for deficit 'scapegoat'

The president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says the government is blaming workers for its own mismanagement.

Government letter asks for public service employee compensation cap

Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich says the province is attacking its own workers.

The president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says the government is blaming workers for its own mismanagement.

A letter was distributed by the government to public sector services on Friday asking for a cap on employee compensation.

"This is calculated. The government is looking for a scapegoat," said federation president Larry Hubich.

"Attacking public sector workers; attacking the students who go to our schools; making patients pay for the cost of government's ridiculous spending — particularly on their mega projects — is really heartless," said Hubich.

The letter suggested considering a freeze on wage increases, range increments and performance or bonus pay — and opening collective bargaining to meet the new directive.

The government said its goal is tackling its $1-billion deficit.

Hubich said the government is "looking for someone to beat up on and it happens to be their own employees, so they can continue with the narrative that the real problem in Saskatchewan isn't that they're incompetent, it's that it's everybody else's fault."

Spending money 'like drunken sailors'

The president of Saskatchewan's Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) chapter agrees unwise spending is now being downloaded to government employees.

"They've spent money — I'll use the old analogy — like drunken sailors," said Tom Graham.

"They've spent money unwisely in our estimate. The Regina bypass started out at $400 million; it's now $1.8 billion."

CUPE president Tom Graham doesn't think the government's cost-cutting attempt with its own workers will impact the $1-billion deficit. (CBC)

Graham said he does not believe the province's cost-cutting measures, with regards to workers, will impact the deficit. 

"I view this as them trying to cause a distraction from the real issues. Unfortunately, it's going to be very harmful to people I represent if in fact they do see wage rollbacks or layoffs."

Potential legal challenges

The letter, written by deputy premier Don Morgan, said wages paid in 2016-17 totalling $7.1 billion cannot grow in the next year.

"More specifically, for the government fiscal year 2017-18 total compensation costs will be no greater than 2016-17. Negotiations need to commence immediately in order to achieve these goals for in-scope employees prior to April 1, 2017," Morgan wrote.

Not all public sector contracts are in the midst of bargaining. Here's a breakdown:

  • 40 unions in all representing more than 64,000 workers.
  • 25 unions have concluded contract agreements with the government.
  • 10 of those expire by March 21.
  • 15 others are in open negotiations.

Morgan's message that "negotiations need to commence immediately," is being met with questions from Hubich.

"To go in and unilaterally open an agreement and roll back the wages, I think they would have a legal hurdle to overcome," Hubich said.

Graham said if the government tries to open negotiated contracts CUPE will use "whatever means" it has to fight back, including taking the province to court.

"The Supreme Court has made it clear that we have a right to collective agreements. You negotiate a contract and that contract is the contract," Graham said.

"Our success rate in court against the government has been a heck of a lot better than theirs."

Government defends position

On Monday, Finance Minister Kevin Doherty defended the government's directive to the public service employers.
Finance Minister Kevin Doherty said the government's directive to cut compensation costs applies to the entire public sector. (William Desaulniers/CBC News)

He said it was not a "threat" of layoffs but a request for employers to start discussions with unions and employee groups about cost-cutting options. 

"It could be a reduction in salaries at this point in time; it could be leaves of absence; it could be unpaid days; it could be layoffs," Doherty said. 

The government sent the letter to 41 employer groups.