Labour relations 'minefield' awaits Scott Moe as Sask. premier

Premier-designate Scott Moe’s promise of education funding may have Saskatchewan’s teachers union feeling hopeful, but it isn’t enough to convince other public-sector unions to stop their protests over last year’s contentious budget.

Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says no plans to end 'Stop the Cuts' protests over last year's budget

As Saskatchewan's new premier, Scott Moe will have to take over a labour-relations file that has been contentious over the past year. (Alex Brockman/CBC News )

Premier-designate Scott Moe's promise of education funding may have Saskatchewan's teachers union feeling hopeful, but it isn't enough to convince other public-sector unions to stop their protests over last year's contentious budget

There have been dozens of protests at the legislature and at Saskatchewan Party functions since last year's budget slashed spending, shut down the Saskatchewan Transportation Company and proposed a $250 million wage reduction — or 3.5 per cent pay cut — for public servants.

Signs reading "Stop the Cuts" continue to be on the side of Highway 11 between Regina and Saskatoon.

Officials with the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour say they're hopeful they can have a better relationship with Moe — who won the Sask. Party leadership race last Saturday — than they did with outgoing premier Brad Wall. But they aren't ready to give up their campaign.

"We don't think it would be a good idea to stop our push right now," said Lori Johb, secretary-treasurer for the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour.

"Now more than ever we need to make sure we're being heard."

The federation invited Moe to meet with labour officials shortly after he won the Saskatchewan Party leadership race, and Johb said she's hopeful they can meet face to face.

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour's Lori Johb says she's hopeful there will be better lines of communication between public-sector unions and the provincial government under Scott Moe. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)
"It's a wait-and-see approach, but we've sent the invitation and we're hopeful he'll meet with us."

Though not all public-sector contracts are currently being negotiated, 19 different bargaining units representing more than 57,000 employees are in negotiations right now. Another contract is set to expire in February, the Federation of Labour reports.

The proposed 3.5 per cent wage cut hangs over all of those negotiations.  

None of the unions have agreed to the cuts and none will, Johb said.   

"I don't think there is ever going to be a group that's going to agree to a 3.5 per cent rollback," she said. "We haven't kept up with the cost of living. Workers cannot afford to see their wages reduced — it's not something we can consider."

The government has defended the proposal as a request for unions and employee groups to find cost-cutting options as the province tries to balance the budget.

'Backed into a corner'

For Moe, the question of how he will handle organized labour is new. Labour relations were not a focal point of the Saskatchewan Party leadership campaign.

But once he's sworn in as premier, it becomes a "minefield" he'll need to navigate, said Ken Rasmussen, a professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina.

"It's going to be very difficult to avoid a certain level of labour unrest in the province if the government continues with austerity budgets and expecting big wage cuts for its employees," Rasmussen said.

"There are a series of minefields out there for him. I suspect some of them, he's going to step on."

Ken Rasmussen says labour negotiations are a minefield for incoming premier Scott Moe. (CBC)
It's not clear when Moe will release this year's budget but he's promised to balance the books by 2019.

For Rasmussen, that promise — on top of keeping his promise of $30 million in education funding — puts Moe into a bind that will be difficult to get out of.

"He can't turn around and say, 'We're going to have to go into an even bigger deficit.' He's pretty much backed into a corner," Rasmussen said.

"He's in a tough bind trying to maintain commitments on a balanced budget and avoiding widespread labour unrest in the province."  

Moe is set to be sworn in and introduce his cabinet on Friday.