Saskatoon

SaskTel union votes in favour of strike mandate

The union representing SaskTel employees has voted in favour of a strike mandate.

No strike for now, at least until after round of bargaining set for mid-August

SaskTel's CBA expired on March 16, 2019 and talks between the Crown Corporation and union representing its workers ended on June 21 without an agreement. On Monday, July 22, Unifor members voted in favour of a strike mandate. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

The union representing roughly 3,000 SaskTel employees has a mandate to strike, but it won't be taking any job action until at least mid-August pending another round of negotiations.

Unifor members have been without a contract since the current deal between SaskTel and the union expired in March. On Monday, officials with the union said it hasn't released final vote numbers, but said there was a "strong majority" of members in favour of job action. 

Chris MacDonald, assistant to Unifor's national president Jerry Dias, said the strike mandate puts the union in a strong spot.

"We're not looking for anything that's extraordinary or out of the question," he said. "Our position, as the folks in Saskatchewan know, has been that if it was good enough for elected politicians to give themselves a 2.3 per cent [raise], then we'd certainly be happy if they applied that same raise to the people that work at SaskTel." 

Unifor represents roughly 3,000 employees working for SaskTel in Saskatchewan.

Last year, SaskTel reported $127 million in net profit and MacDonald said the company would still be profitable, even if it increased employee wages.

David Kuntz, who represents Unifor Local 1-S said the union insisted SaskTel put a monetary offer on the table. He said SaskTel has committed to bringing that forward when negotiations resume in August.

MacDonald, however, said he's unsure if SaskTel will deliver on its commitment once talks resume. 

"What I'm confident in is the resolve of our membership, that's one thing I'm confident in," he said. "I don't necessarily have the same confidence in the government to change the mandate of SaskTel without a significant pressure on them and ultimately that's what the strike vote is about."

In a statement, SaskTel said it won't be commenting on the details of bargaining, but said it remains "committed to working through the process with Unifor to finalize a new Collective Agreement."

The statement also noted it's "business as usual" at SaskTel. Even though a strike-mandate is in place, the union has not served SaskTel with 72-hours' notice of job action.

"The parties have provided their commitment to no strike, lockout or change in working conditions during the intervening period," the statement explained.

Keir Vallance is an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Law. He says strike mandate votes are usually a show of strength by unions. (Courtesy Keir Vallance )

These types of votes aren't uncommon, said Keir Vallance, an assistant professor of labour and employment law at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Law. Strike mandate votes are usually a "show of strength" by a union, he said.

"It opens the possibility of job action and the possibility of putting economic pressure on the employer and public relations pressure if bargaining continues to stall," he said. 

Vallance said SaskTel, as a public utility, might be more inclined to try and avoid a strike as it wants to ensure continued service, but the fact the company is also a Crown Corporation puts it more into the "public sphere and public consciousness."

"With SaskTel being a public utility, economic pressure still has a factor, but the public relations component may be just as, or more important, to try to bring public pressure on SaskTel, and perhaps indirectly the government, to resolve the dispute." 

He said it's likely the union is trying to send a message to government ahead of upcoming talks in August. The votes usually come down before a breakdown in negotiations to show the employer that "the union means business," he said.

Unifor members voted on strike mandate at several meetings between July 10-20.

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