Unifor pitches binding arbitration to end Crown strike

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

Unifor would be willing to submit to final and binding arbitration between its striking workers and the province’s Crown corporations, national president Jerry Dias said Friday.

But the Crown camp quickly rejected the offer.

“The Crowns will not be agreeing to binding arbitration,” Blair Swystun, president and CEO of Crown Investments Corporation, said in an email to media. “We believe agreements can be reached by continuing to bargain in good faith.”

The announcement came after two days of talks between Unifor and the Crown employers. The government initially characterized them as promising.

“We are encouraged by the productive talks over the past couple of days and hope that collective agreements can be reached soon with the workers of all Crowns,” government spokesman Matt Glover said earlier on Friday.

Dias spoke to reporters at 5 p.m. Friday. He said that progress had been made on all of the non-monetary concerns at the bargaining table, but that the two parties were still far apart when it comes to wages.

Unionized employees from six crown corporations, SaskTel, SaskWater, SaskPower, SaskEnergy, The Water Security Agency and Directwest walked off the job at midnight on Oct. 4. Essential staff and managers continue to work during the labour disruption. A tentative deal has been reached between unionized employees and the Water Security Agency.

According to a letter Dias sent to Scott Moe Friday, the two parties have agreed to all non-monetary items.

However, Dias says, it’s the provincial government, not the Crown corporations, that are making things difficult.

“If you and your government are not in control of the bargaining agenda, then you’ll accept this proposal,” Dias said.

“The only reason why people are still on the street is because of a government mandate that makes no sense.”

Dias alleged that negotiators representing the Crown corporations are being handcuffed by government officials who have given them a mandate of zero per cent increases in the first two years of a five-year contract.

The Crowns’ offer is a one per cent increase in the third year of the contract followed by two per cent increases in the years following,

Unifor is asking for a two per cent increase in the first year of the contract and a lump sum payment to its members in lieu of an increase this year. The union has cited the 2.3 per cent pay increase given to MLAs in its arguments for a raise.

Friday, Dias argued that the Crown corporations are making millions and can easily afford their proposed pay increases. He said the government mandate of zero per cent increases for the first two years of the new contract “makes no sense.

“I think everyone in the province understands that except the premier.”

Dias said the government is bargaining in bad faith. He alleged that after meeting with government officials, the Crowns came to the table with an offer Friday that was “economically inferior” to what had been offered the day prior. The difference, he said, is what the provincial government is allowing the Crown negotiators to offer.

“No company, let alone government, will be at bargaining and come back with an inferior offer. That is bargaining in bad faith,” he said.

“Until they get some movement from the zeros, we’re not going anywhere fast. We need the government to take the shackles off the Crowns. You need to allow the Crowns to bargain in good faith — which they want to.”

Dias said that should the province agree to binding arbitration on the economics of the deal, the workers will end their job action and return to work. If not, though, he vowed that the strike will continue and that pressure will be ramped up.

“We will do what we need to do to get (Moe’s) attention,” Dias said.

–With Files from Arthur White-Crummey, Regina Leader-Post