Expect 'ugly battle' over public sector wage freeze, Regina professor says

Saskatchewan's billion-dollar deficit must be dealt with, but don't expect public sector unions to quietly go along with wage freezes, a Regina university professor says.

Provincial goverment wants wage freeze to deal with $1B deficit

Public administration professor Ken Rasmussen says an ugly battle could be brewing between the government and public sector unions over a proposed wage freeze. (CBC)

Saskatchewan's billion-dollar deficit must be dealt with, but don't expect public sector unions to quietly go along with wage freezes, a Regina university professor says.

"It's going to be an ugly battle, I suspect," said Ken Rasmussen, who teaches public policy at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

Rasmussen was reacting to the letter sent to school divisions this month laying out the province's dire financial situation and ordering management to hold the line on employee compensation.

Similar letters were sent out to management groups throughout the public sector.

"There may be a need to consider such things as freezing in range increments, general wage increases and performance/bonus pay, for both in and out of scope employees in order to meet the requirement to contain and control the total cost of public sector compensation," the Jan. 13 letter said.

I doubt that most workers are going to go down and say, 'Here's some money for you to pay off your debts.'- Public policy professor Ken Rasmussen

Rasmussen said it's surprising the government is being so specific on how employers are supposed to cut spending, instead of simply telling them there will be a cut and allowing them to figure it out for themselves.

And it's "a bit rich" for the government to ask people to forget about their negotiated collective agreements, he said. 

"I doubt that most workers are going to go down and say, 'Here's some money for you to pay off your debts,'" Rasmussen said. "That's not going to happen."

It's sensible that any deficit-reduction plan would be a balanced approach, involving wage restraint, program cuts and revenue enhancements, he said.

On the other hand, putting the focus on compensation might be partly about optics, he added.

"It may not make sense in terms of fiscal planning, but it makes sense in terms of sending a signal to the people of Saskatchewan," he said.

Finance Minister Kevin Doherty said this week that the province is not ruling anything out, including tax increases.

It could be a matter of eliminating tax exemptions, raising rates, or finding "new types of taxes" that exist in other jurisdictions.