'It doesn't look promising': Sask. government faces opposition to wage cuts

Donna Harpauer, Saskatchewan’s minister of finance, says it "doesn't look promising" that public-sector workers will absorb the government’s target of a 3.5 per cent cut to their wages.

Union's rejection of 3.5% wage cut target could cause domino effect, professor says

The rejection of a contract including a 3.5 per cent wage cut by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers may embolden other unions to do the same and spell trouble for the provincial government, says a University of Regina professor. (CBC News)

"We'll continue to try, but it doesn't look promising."

That was how Donna Harpauer, Saskatchewan's minister of finance, described the likelihood of public-sector workers to accept the government's target of a 3.5 per cent cut to their wages.

"The collective bargaining will continue and we'll have to adjust our budget accordingly, as we move forward," she told reporters Wednesday.

The minister's comments followed a move by members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — a union representing more than 1,700 SaskPower workers — to reject the 3.5 per cent rollback.

Members 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, the province set a target to cut overall public sector worker compensation by 3.5 per cent.

Finance Minister Donna Harpauer says it doesn't look promising that public sector employees will accept the government's target of a 3.5 per cent wage decrease. (Stefani Langenegger/CBC)

"Of course, it's concerning," Harpauer said when asked how worried she was that the union's move will inspire others to reject the targeted cuts.

"We're hoping that somewhere they would, sort of, follow the example we've set," the minister said. MLAs in Saskatchewan voted to cut their own wages by 3.5 per cent in April.

"We want to keep all of our workers," Harpauer said, pointing to positions added by her government in health care and education.

"But somehow we also have to make ends meet."

She said no decisions have been made regarding whether the government would consider layoffs.

Opposition MLA Warren McCall says the government never really believed its 3.5 per cent wage reduction would be accepted by the public sector. (CBC News)

NDP public service commission critic Warren McCall said he doesn't think the government ever believed the wage cut would be accepted.

"I think it was a talking point for them to paper over some of the more egregious bits of baloney in their budget."

He said using money from the province's contingency fund to backfill the budget hole left by unions rejecting the target cuts would represent "another example of fiscal mismanagement."

A domino effect

"I think this might be the start of a broader movement of saying no to these austerity measures," said Andrew Stevens, a University of Regina professor who studies labour relations.

Stevens said he felt many unions did not want to be the first to confront the government or public-sector employers about the cuts. Now that IBEW has taken that step, he thinks the tone of the situation may have changed.

Andrew Stevens, a University of Regina professor who studies labour relations, says that the decision of one union to reject the government's proposed wage cuts could cause a domino effect. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

"I think this might give others courage," he said. "Or at least some sense that it's possible to go back to the table and negotiate an agreement, and not have a government dictate, in the end, what the wage settlement will be."

Ken Rasmussen, who teaches public policy at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, echoed that idea.

IBEW's rejection "will embolden other unions to take a hard stance," he said, adding that it indicates a "hard battle ahead" for the government.

"The government built a lot of its budget — which is already in disarray — around the notion that they were going to get wage rollbacks," he said.

'The potential to be a huge mess'

For the governing Saskatchewan Party, holding the line on the 3.5 per cent target would come at a cost, Rasmussen said.

"Picking a fight with large swaths of organized labour in the province isn't going to help the Sask. Party's popularity," he said.

Ken Rasmussen, a professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, says a labour dispute could turn into a very messy situation for the Saskatchewan government. (CBC News)

"It has the potential to be a huge mess. Let's put it that way."

The fact that the Saskatchewan Party is in the middle of a leadership race makes the issue even more complex, Rasmussen said.

"You don't want to test your new leader in this kind of environment," he said.

He also said a party reluctant to hurl a new leader into a labour dispute but needing to fill a budget hole is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"This just compounds an already bad situation."

Strike talk

For workers, Stevens said, the province's essential services legislation is "looming" in the background, even though it was revised after being deemed unconstitutional by Canada's Supreme Court in 2015.

Even so, he said the idea of work stoppages might not be out of the question in the case of electrical workers or across the public sector.

"I would predict that at least discussions about a strike or a lockout will likely be on the horizon," said Stevens, noting that he viewed the likelihood of a strike actually happening as "pretty slim."

Still, if the conversation starts with electrical workers, he said it could spread to health care, into the public service commission and elsewhere in the public sector.

With files from Stefani Langenegger