SaskTel to lock out employees as other strikers to return to work to rule

Crown employees wave to a passing vehicle while walking the picket lines outside the SaskPower offices in the south end of Prince Albert. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Workers from some provincial Crown corporations will be returning to work to rule tomorrow after two days of strikes, but SaskTel workers will be locked out by their employers.

A lot happened Monday in the ongoing labour dispute, with hundreds of SaskTel workers forming perimeters around SaskTel call centres Monday morning in Saskatoon and Regina, blocking management from entering the buildings.

According to the Regina Leader-Post, Unifor organizers said the blockades were an attempt to shut down services managers performed while unionized workers strike.

Unifor’s assistant to the national president, Chris MacDonald, later announced to the assembled strikers that they should plan on returning to work Tuesday morning in a bid to throw off the plans of Crown employers.

“Tomorrow morning we’re all returning to work and that will be a huge inconvenience for them because they’re not ready,” he said. “We’re going to work to rule and then we’re going to not let them know until the last minute when we’re walking out again.”

MacDonald said workers would not physically stop managers from going inside, but the line of workers standing shoulder to shoulder formed a nearly impassable barrier. He said workers have been given “no choice” but to take action like the blockade.

“Today in Regina and Saskatoon, members of Unifor who work for SaskTel have taken a stand,” he said.

“Managers are doing our work, trying to keep the call centres open, preventing us from getting back to the table. We need to put this pressure on SaskTel so they can put the pressure on the government to get back on the table to negotiate a fair deal that doesn’t include a two-year wage freeze for our members.”

Employers have offered deals with two years of flat wages followed by hikes of one per cent, two per cent and two per cent. Unifor has countered with three years of two per cent hikes combined with lump sum payments for expired years in their contracts.

While the two sides have negotiated essential services agreements to ensure the public is protected, SaskTel support lines are not covered. Managers have stepped in to pick up the slack, as they have in other areas.

MacDonald said actions similar to Monday’s blockade should be expected wherever managers are doing work usually performed by employees.

A press release sent out shortly after noon by Unifor said 5,000 striking Crown workers will be back on the job Tuesday.

According to the news release, Unifor retains the right to resume picket lines if need be.

“Premier Moe caused the strike, and now he has fled the province and his responsibilities,” the press release quoted Jerry Dias, Unifor national president as saying.

Speaking during the Saskatchewan Party convention Saturday, Moe invited the union to reconsider the government’s final offer.

“There’s an offer on the table of five per cent over five years, a long term offer, and we would ask that these tables come back to the bargaining table,” Moe said, according to CTV.

Dias reportedly said all Unifor wants is the same wage increase government MLAs received this year.

While some unionized employees will be allowed to return to the job today, that won’t be the case for everyone.

SaskTel sent out a news release late Monday detailing why it would not allow striking workers to return to the job. They attached a lockout notice sent to the Unifor national office.

“SaskTel will not be allowing employees who are members of Unifor to return to work in the absence of a concluded collective agreement,” the press release said.

“SaskTel did not make this decision lightly, but management cannot provide the desired level of customer service or maintain the integrity of our networks for the people of Saskatchewan with unknown and intermittent walkouts.”

According to SaskTel, it takes up to 48 hours to mobilize the business back and forth to have processes, systems and access in place. With the union only vowing to give 24 hours notice of a potential strike, “This creates far too much uncertainty and the corporation needs to ensure we are able to maintain the integrity of our networks and serve our customers in a safe and secure manner,” SaskTel said.

SaskTel also seemingly accused the workers of causing disruptions during the work to rule action last week. In a press release, SaskTel said the actions “may have” impacted the ability to televise live events and other live pay-per-view events.

It also appears there were fictitious orders created that may have potentially disrupted service to our customers.

 “SaskTel is also considering applying for an injunction to stop Unifor’s illegal labour disruption activities, such as preventing non-union employees from reporting to work at the SaskTel Contact Centres,” the Crown corporation wrote.

“While Unifor members have the right to strike, non-unionized workers also have the right to get to work. It is unacceptable that management employees are being prevented from entering their workplace and are reportedly being threatened for attempting to do so.”

SaskTel said it remains committed to reaching an agreement and will make every effort to limit disruptions to customers. Delays may be experienced, they said, as the primary focus will be on maintaining essential services.

Other Crown employees, however, will be allowed back on the job site by their employers.

In a brief statement, a SaskPower spokesperson said that Crown corporation does not plan to lock out employees.

“Employees ho return will be put to work,” they said.

The call centre will operate from 9a .m. to 4 p.m. During the two strike days, Monday and Friday, it operated from 10 to 3. While SaskEnergy did not put out a press release, according to CTV’s Marc Smith, they will also be allowed back on the job.

— WIth files from Alex MacPherson and Arthur White-Crummey