Behind the bargaining — Unifor 1-S president talks strike strategy during presentation for provincial NDP

Unifor local 1-S president Dave Kuntz speaks at the NDP convention on Nov. 3, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Unifor is pleased with what it was able to accomplish at the bargaining table and with its accomplishments in terms of job action, the Saskatchewan NDP heard during day three of their convention in Prince Albert on Nov. 3.

Dave Kuntz, president of Unifor Local 1-S, which represents employees at SaskTel, Directwest and SecurTek, spoke about the 17-day strike. He spoke about what went on at the bargaining table, the strategy the union used and the types of actions they were prepared to take.

“The strike here in Saskatchewan is the largest in Unifor’s history,” he said, adding that most contract negotiations never get to the point where workers actually have to strike.

“From a strategic point of view, we knew that we had all of our collective bargaining agreements lining up for expiry at about the same point in time, and if we wanted to be successful in bargaining, we needed to … coordinate the bargaining by mobilizing the strength of 5,000 employees and standing up against the government and its mandates.”

Kuntz stressed that the primary concerns of his members didn’t have to do with money. Rather, members were concerned about contracting out, mental health and performance management issues.

However, he said the union needed to have a public campaign to put pressure on the Crowns and the provincial government. Contracting out, mental health and performance management don’t resonate, he said. But money does.

“The people of Saskatchewan love their Crown corporations,” he said. “They understand crowns provide jobs for people across this province.”

Kuntz said things started coming together for the union when the government passed a cost of living increase of 2.3 per cent for MLAs in April.

“We don’t disagree with that increase,” he said. “It’s fair.”
He also understood that the Crowns themselves didn’t have control of the money.

“We asked the chair across the table from us, do you have control of the financial package and the ability to say ‘yes’ to our tentative agreement, and she said ‘yes,” Kuntz said. “We knew she didn’t and shortly after that she found out she didn’t have control of that money.”

The Sask. Party refuted this. They told reporters the Crowns were able to bargain freely. Kuntz argued that this was not the case.

Kuntz said they put as much pressure on Premier Scott Moe as they could, “trying to damage his reputation in an effort to have him back off from the mandate for the crowns.”

Kuntz, and Unifor, have argued that the Crown corporations are like any other corporation, with control over their revenues and expenses.

“The only difference is they have a requirement that they have to provide a good, reliable service to everybody in the province at a reasonable rate and still return that dividend … that funds all the other good things we have in this province,” Kuntz said. “The crowns wanted a deal. They knew the potential impacts of the labour dispute — (it) would affect their revenues as a corporation, it would affect their customers, and it would ultimately affect their employees and the morale of their employees.”

Kuntz alleged that SaskTel’s president tried as many as five times to get the government to back down on its mandate for the Crowns. He accused the government of shooting down SaskTel’s president every single time they tried to get a deal.

They kept up the pressure.

When it looked like a strike might be imminent, Unifor had some decisions to make.

“For the members, a strike is a scary thing,” Kuntz said. “People’s financial systems and their resolve are different when it comes to a strike. We have people living paycheck to paycheck, people with single income-families, members with large debt and members where both (partners) work at a crown. We’ve also got members who will take whatever they get. They don’t want to stand up and fight. Then, we have members at the other end of that spectrum, and they’re willing to take on this fight … to the end.”

Kuntz said finding that balance is difficult. The union knew a prolonged strike wouldn’t work as it would risk losing the support of members and the public, and could cause damage to the crown corporations.

“We had to escalate pressure quickly to get the best deal possible in the shortest amount of time,” Kuntz said. “This was accomplished by creating front-page news.”

Unifor shut down crown facilities and participated in large, loud marches in downtown Regina.

Eventually, Kuntz said, they started to see some of the crowns looking at creative ways to beat the alleged government mandate.

But SaskTel was holding out.

“Based on how bargaining had been going for nine months, we could see that to break the actual zeros in the mandate, it would take a prolonged strike,” Kuntz said. “We were ready for it, but I don’t know if our members were.”

To help get things moving, Kuntz said, Unifor came to SaskTel with “a very extreme threat.”

He said the union told SaskTel that they had 20,000 feet of fence and that they were doing to lock down the provincial warehouse and the wire centres in Saskatoon and Regina for the entirety of the strike. They also threatened to use a robo-dialer to shut down every call centre in the province.

Kuntz said the potential escalation was enough to force SaskTel, SecureTek and Directwest to provide reasonable bargaining solutions, ending the strike.

While SaskTel employees are still ratifying their contract, a process Kuntz said would be done by late next week, Directwest and SecureTek have ratified their deals, which included a pair of one per cent payments into the health spending or flex spending accounts of employees.

“Those two items together, just for SaskTel, resulted in $7 million in new money introduced into the collective agreement,” Kuntz said, “equivalent to about 3.6 per cent. All the other crowns had similar deals.”

Other victories, Kuntz said, included better language concerning contracting out and gains on mental health commitments and performance management.

So far, Kuntz said, it appears that a majority of employees are happy with the deal. A minority wish that the union would have stayed out on the picket line longer and pushed for more.

“Overall, we accomplished our goals,” he said. “In the process, we were able to mobilize 5,000 members and show the benefits of strength, solidarity and standing together. We showed … the public and the government what Unifor is capable of doing.

“We were able to show Scott Moe and the Sask. Party that we were not willing to sit back and be bullied. We damaged his reputation in the process. I for one am going to continue to damage his reputation and remind people what Scott Moe and the Sask. Party did to 5,000 members of this province.”