Long-standing labour issues in Saskatchewan came to a head in 2019 when approximately 5,000 employees from several Crown corporations went on strike across Saskatchewan.
While the strike took place in 2019, the seeds of this current fracture in public-sector relations were planted in the 2017 budget. That budget included plans for a 3.5 per cent public sector compensation reduction across the entire civil services. That policy was ultimately walked back.
Wages were a key issue for striking Unifor members who work for the Crown agencies. The initial offer from the government included wage freezes in the first two years of the five-year contract.
In a year-end interview with Global News, Premier Scott Moe said the affordability of the public service is an issue, as 70 cents of every dollar the government spends goes to compensation.
“We’ve had a struggle over the past two, three, four years here in the province with respect to the strength of our economy. We’ve made some challenging decisions around the provincial budget in order to get it back to balance,” Moe said.
“There’s a number of changes, some of them very hard to make, but necessary if the overarching effort is to balance the budget here in the province.”
The province expects to achieve its back to balance goal at the conclusion of this fiscal year.
The NDP has long been associated with unions, and Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said many workers feel they’re being left behind by the current government.
“It’s a government that came swinging, saying everyone’s going to have to take a 3.5 per cent cut, they have maintained the lowest minimum wage in the country, they’ve done a number of things that make it harder for working people to actually do well,” Meili said.
Meili extended his criticism to the handling of major public projects, like the Regina Bypass. He said the province spent $2 billion on a project where the lead contractor is a French company.
The NDP has been pushing for procurement rules, giving Saskatchewan companies preference when bidding on public sector contracts.
Teacher bargaining poses 2020 challenge
Challenges in negotiating public sector contracts will extend into the New Year. The most high profile example is the current negotiations with the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF).
Those talks are currently scheduled to head into conciliation in the new year. The STF and province remain far apart on a key issue including rules for classroom size and composition in the negotiations.
“It’s education policy. Education policy is never part of the bargaining table conversation. The SSBA, the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, has made statements with respect to that as well. It is not an item that should be, would be, or could be at the bargaining table,” Moe said.
“The fact is there’s a lot getting in the way of that education right now. We have more kids than ever, 7,000 more kids in our classes since 2016 but not a dollar more,” Meili said.
The Saskatchewan Party cut $56 million from the education operating budget in 2017. That money has been replenished to pre-cut levels in subsequent years.
“Alongside more crowded classrooms, we have more complex classrooms; more kids with special needs, more kids for whom English is a new language, more kids struggling with mental health and addictions trouble, more kids coming to school hungry because they’re living in poverty,” Meili said on further classroom issues.
The government has established a committee to come up with recommendations on how to address issues around classroom size and composition for the 2020-21 budget.
The STF was offered a seat on this committee, but declined. STF president Patrick Maze has equated this committee to bad faith bargaining.
As the talks continue, Moe is hopeful the government and STF don’t hit an impasse.
“It would be my true hope that we are not at an impasse. It would be my true hope that we’re all going to work collaboratively to address some of the identified issues that are there,” Moe said.
“They won’t be addressed at the bargaining table; they will be addressed by this committee and by the government through investing in precisely what the appropriate supports are.”
Meili said there should be caps on the size of classes. If the NDP wins the 2020 election, Meili said no class from kindergarten to Grade 3 would have more than 24 kids in it.