Finance Minister Donna Harpauer hopes the breakthrough will set an example for some of the 34 public sector negotiating tables as she strives for “certainty” and a balanced budget
Just weeks after talks degenerated into name calling and an ultimatum, three health-sector unions have reached a tentative agreement affecting 26,500 nurses, technicians, cleaners and other health workers in Saskatchewan.
Contracts for SGEU, SEIU-West and CUPE provider locals expired in March 2017. After multiple rounds of negotiation, the locals announced on Monday that they had reached a tentative agreement with the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO), which bargains on behalf of government health agencies.
Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Lori Johb said the news is “pretty huge” given that 34 other locals are still bargaining for new contracts across the public sector.
It could be a signal to other tables, she said.
But she also warned that, from what she’s heard, the tentative agreement won’t be nearly enough for the health workers to keep up with the rising cost of living.
Monday’s announcement followed a renewed three-day bargaining session last week. The resulting agreement still needs to be ratified by members. It addresses “issues common to all three unions” and includes a wage settlement.
Neither the locals nor the government proved willing to reveal details until ratification, but it’s clear that salaries were a major source of contention.
The locals previously rejected a proposed wage offer of 0%, 0%, 1% and 2%, according to a Feb. 11 posting to their websites. They accused SAHO of “strong arm tactics” and “schoolyard bullying” after what they said was an ultimatum to accept the wage offer or face a possible 3.5-per-cent wage cut. Funding for the employee dental plan was also apparently at issue.
Michael Higgins, CEO of SAHO, did not deny the ultimatum claim when reached by the Leader-Post. He said negotiations are never easy when workers are seeking better compensation and the government’s starting position is a cut.
“Certainly, beginning this round of negotiation with a minus-3.5 reduction in compensation as a mandate made it all the more challenging,” Higgins said.
That reduction target was set in 2017 under Premier Brad Wall. Finance Minister Donna Harpauer later walked it back in the face of vocal resistance from labour groups.
The 34 outstanding agreements cover more than 64,000 full-time equivalent positions in executive government and Crowns. Some contracts have been expired for years. Harpauer noted that 70 per cent of the provincial budget comes from compensation costs, meaning that a small percentage shift in overall wages can have a big impact on the bottom line.
She hopes the example set by the healthcare providers will echo across the public sector and lead to more agreements. That’s of special urgency as she prepares to table a budget next month.
“It’s significant, and of course I’m trying to balance the budget…” she said. “It just makes it more certain as I work toward the new budget.”
Health expenses are one of the heaviest line items in government spending, with the ministry budgeting $5.3 billion for the fiscal year just wrapping up. CUPE, SEIU-West and SGEU members make up more than half of the payroll for the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA). But the remaining two health sector unions — the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses and the Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan — still have expired contracts.
For Higgins, the tentative agreement announced Monday is a major milestone. It’s the first contract to apply after the transition to the SHA.
“All of the collective agreements were built in an environment that reflected 12 geographic health regions,” he explained. “And now that they’re operating as a single employer, it’s going to impact numerous provisions of the collective agreements.
“It definitely makes it a little more complex.”