Saskatchewan

'This might be a long one': 5,000 Unifor workers at Sask. Crowns on strike

Workers at seven Crown corporations hit the picket lines Friday, as a massive strike involving roughly 5,000 Unifor members began.

Workers from 7 Crown corporations hit picket line on Friday morning

Hundreds of employees from the seven different Crowns on strike gathered in front of the Queensbury Centre in Regina where the Sask Party is meeting for its convention this weekend. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Workers at seven Saskatchewan Crown corporations were on strike as of Friday morning.

Roughly 5,000 Unifor members working with SaskTel, SaskPower, SaskEnergy, SaskWater, the Water Security Agency and two SaskTel subsidiaries were officially on strike as of 12:01 a.m. Friday, in one of the largest public sector strikes in years affects around 5,000

Some workers in Regina hit the picket line at around 7 a.m. CST.

"You can't help but feel a little defeated some days," said Amber Bast, who has worked with SaskPower for 12 years.

"I have got a lot of mixed emotions, so I'm out here supporting my co-workers," who added both her mother and grandmother also worked with SaskPower.

"I'm a single mom of two girls, so I'm not getting a paycheque, right? So it's not going to be easy," Bast said. "We are holding each other up during this time and we will continue to do that until, well, forever."

Unifor has been in contract negotiations with the provincial government for months.

Job action began earlier this week with a "work to rule" campaign after the union and the province were unable to reach a deal.

Unifor workers went on strike at midnight on Friday morning after the union and province failed to reach a deal by the deadline. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
Workers on strike walk up and down Saskatchewan Drive in Regina. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
Co-ordinators were handing out signs and string to striking members from Crown corporations on Friday morning. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
Cars honked at striking workers along Victoria Avenue outside of SaskPower's head office in Regina. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
Reid Henry is a father of three and unsure of how the strike will affect his family if it continues, he said. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

SaskTel worker Reid Henry was among those on a picket line early Friday morning.

"I'd like to keep up hope, but the rumours going around is that this might be a long one," Henry said. "So we're bracing for the worst and hopefully we can get through it all."

It's a stressful situation, he added.

"I've got a family I need to feed, and not having my paycheque is quite scary."

Workers strike outside of SaskPower's head office on Victoria Avenue in Regina on Friday. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
Unifor donated the most money to third parties between June 30 and Oct. 1, a CBC News analysis found. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)
Jody Baseden, Amber Bast and Kim Watts were all on the picket line in front of SaskPower on Friday. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Jody Baseden and Kim Watts were surprised it came to a strike. They have 80 years of experience working at SaskPower between them. 

"Everybody's very anxious. Nobody wants to be here," Baseden said. "It's devastating — we just hope we can get this settled because it affects a lot of lives." 

Essential services agreements mean some unionized members will remain available during the strike to protect the public from potentially dangerous situations. (Trevor Bothorel/Radio-Canada)

Essential services agreements with the Crowns mean some unionized members will remain available during the strike, in order to protect the public from potentially dangerous situations and respond to emergencies. Examples include SaskPower's outage centre and SaskTel's 911 service. 

SaskPower spokesman Joel Cherry said the Crown utility has designated 14 staff to operate the outage centre for the entire province in the event of a strike.

SaskTel issued a statement saying that all of its stores will be closed during the labour disruption. 

Customers can access some services on SaskTel's website or at authorized dealers. SaskTel isn't able to transfer services or activate new home services, the statement said. Customers can pay their bills online, by mail or at a bank or credit union. 

Union upset over wages 

Unifor and the provincial government have so far been unable to come to an agreement on wage increases in a new contract.

The union previously said the province's offer included a wage freeze for employees. In an email sent last Saturday, a government spokesperson said its offer is a five per cent raise over five years, not a wage freeze.

The government is offering a deal that would include two years of zero per cent increases, followed by a one per cent increase, a two per cent increase and in some cases, another two per cent increase. 

Unifor national president Jerry Dias has said the union wants a two per cent increase each year to match inflation. 

Unifor National President Jerry Dias said the strike across seven Crowns is the largest in the unions history. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

"All management negotiating committees are available to return to the bargaining tables whenever the union is ready to come back to the table," Blair Swystun, president and CEO of the Crown Investments Corporation said on Friday.

"No one wins in a strike, we want to see agreements reached as soon as possible," Swystun said. 

Unifor representative Chris MacDonald said Thursday the union hasn't had communication with the government since last Friday, adding it is highly unusual to not hear from the other bargaining party for that long.

Finance Minister Donna Harpauer issued a statement on Friday afternoon regarding the strike. It said the government continues to believe strike action is not in the best interest of Crown corporations, employees or the people of Saskatchewan.

"We believe that the employer offer of five per cent over five years respects the hard work of Crown employees while balancing the fiscal reality of our province," the minister's statement said. "We remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached at the bargaining table in good faith."

With files from Creeden Martell, Bryan Eneas and Heidi Atter

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