The Government of Saskatchewan was among the first jurisdictions to introduce public sector bargaining, which is now common across Canada. This right was extended to public sector employees through the Saskatchewan Trade Union Act of 1944. Indeed, the bargain- ing successes of the Saskatchewan government in the post- war period may have prompted other jurisdictions to extend similar rights to their employees.
Although it encountered strains in the 1980s during the Conservative administration of Grant Devine, a gov- ernment that did not pretend to be union-friendly, and endured the financial austerity imposed by Roy Romanow in the 1990s, the public sector bargaining process emerged basically unchanged in the new millen- nium. However, very recent events have perhaps demon- strated that the mechanisms long used by the Saskatchewan government to manage public sector col- lective bargaining may be approaching the end of their shelf life.
In his budget of March 30, 2004, Saskatchewan Finance Minister Harry Van Mulligan spoke of the ”œeconomic fluctuations and unexpected events” that had buffeted the province. Declining resource revenues, a drought, assistance to farmers affected by mad cow disease and the expense of fighting forest fires had been a serious drain on provincial finances. The minister increased the provincial sales tax and the price of cigarettes and beer, and announced, ”œwith great regret,” the layoff of 500 provincial employees. The fiscal austerity was necessary, the minister said, because ”œwe can- not live on savings indefinitely…We are committed to living within our means.” While a balanced budget had again been achieved, the government had had to dip into its Fiscal Stabilization Fund, and that fund was now exhausted.
In an unprecedented move for Saskatchewan’s New Democratic Party government, Van Mulligan also announced publicly the financial mandate for the upcom- ing public sector collective bargaining, in a media briefing following the tabling of the budget. The mandate would be zero in year 1, and 1 percent in the two following years. Premier Lorne Calvert stated that the mandate was firm, and this was the government’s final offer.
The Saskatchewan government has for many years established a financial mandate for collective bar- gaining in a broad area of the provin- cial public sector: that is, the public service, government businesses and funded agencies, health care and edu- cation. Municipal government settle- ments generally take provincial government settlements into account. The mandate process is coordinated by the Department of Finance with some input by employers; public sector unions are not part of the process. Typically the gov- ernment attempts to set the mandate as a pattern settlement, by reaching a collective agree- ment with public service unions first, and then attempting to reach the same agreement with other public sector unions. In recent years it has concluded bargaining in the health sector. With a few exceptions, it has generally been successful. While this arrangement elicited com- plaints from the commercial Crowns " for example, Sasktel " for not providing salaries that were appropriate in its competi- tive environment, it was com- mon practice from 1980 onward.
With the exception of collective bar- gaining legislation that applies to educa- tional sector employees (kindergarten to grade 12), the police and firefighters, the Saskatchewan Trade Union Act applies generally to union-management negoti- ations. Among Canadian jurisdictions, Saskatchewan is unique in not having specific legislation for the public sector. Even in the bargaining units that did not fall under the Act, bargaining practices are similar to those under the Act. There are no prohibitions on the right to strike in the public sector and there is no essential service legislation.
One should appreciate the scope of the public sector in Saskatchewan. According to Statistics Canada, in 2004 the total number of persons employed in Saskatchewan stood at 383,100. Of this number, 129,300, or 33.75 per- cent, were union members; 116,400 were employed in the public sector, and 73.4 percent or 85,400 of these were union members.
The Personnel Policy Secretariat " which provides direction and analysis for policies dealing with provincial public sector compensation, collective bargaining and human resource man- agement as a whole " attempts to influence the collective bargaining outcomes of approximately 57, 000 of the 85,400 public sector union mem- bers. Needless to say, these settlements are taken into consideration by other public sector employers and unions that are not under its influence " for example, universities and municipal governments. Consequently, its influ- ence on public sector collective bar- gaining can be described as pervasive.
The first major collective agree- ment to be negotiated under the publicly stated financial mandate was between the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) and the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU). This agreement applied to approximately l,100 lecturers, instructors and librarians employed in technical institutes throughout the province. A settlement was achieved in May 2004, following a work stoppage, that fell within the mandate. A second settlement applying to approximately 500 administrative staff members also fell within the mandate, and was pre- ceded by an 11-day work stoppage.
Next was a negotiated agreement between the Public Service Commission and the SGEU in November 2004, cov- ering approximately 9,000 public ser- vice employees, which supposedly fell within the mandate. However, it also provided for a cost of living adjustment (COLA) equal to the rise in the Saskatchewan con- sumer price index (CPI) for the last year of the agreement. This amount would be added to the wage rates in effect on the day following the expiry of the col- lective agreement. With this application, the government argued that its mandate had been maintained, as had the tra- ditional pattern of settling early with public service unions.
The next significant agree- ment, reached in May 2005, was between the Saskatchewan School Trustees Association and the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation; it applied to approximately 12,000 elementary and secondary school teachers. Facing the threat of a work stoppage, Education Minister Andrew Thomson announced that more resources were available, and that the employer was prepared to make a new offer when negotiations resumed. The parties set- tled, and the agreement provided for a three-year contract with 2 percent wage increases annually, concluding in August 2007. This appeared to be clear- ly above the government’s publicly stated financial mandate. The govern- ment explained that the wages in excess of the mandate were ”œan allowance” to cover ”œout of pocket expenses” teachers incurred in the classroom.
Nevertheless, by June, the govern- ment had abandoned this mandate. On June 15, 2005, the minister respon- sible for the Crown Management Board, Pat Atkinson, stated that it had been ”œamended” and that ”œnew resources” would be made available. She also stated that the ”œamended mandate” would apply to unions that had already settled under the previous mandate. While not specifying the new mandate, one month earlier the Public Service Commission had rene- gotiated its agreement with the SGEU to provide for an additional 2 percent increase in the third year of its agree- ment. Thus the new mandate was zero, 1 percent and 3 percent, plus COLA based on the increase in the Saskatchewan CPI during the last year of the agreement. Again, the practice of leading with an agreement in the public service was preserved. In an interesting aside, Minister Atkinson stated that a lesson the government had learned from announcing a wage mandate was not to make the man- dates public.
Later, in a press conference in mid-July 2005, Minister Joanne Crofford, chairperson of the Cabinet Committee on Public Sector Compensation, stated that the reason for ditching the zero, 1 percent and 1 percent was a significant increase in revenues from resources and federal equalization, and she confirmed the new mandate. As a result, all the major Crown corporations " for example, Sasktel, Sask Power and Sask Energy " as well as Treasury Board Crowns, boards and agencies, which had con- cluded agreements in 2005, reached new settlements based on the new zero-1-3-COLA mandate. By October 2005, the only sector outstanding was health: that is, nurses, thera- pists, technicians, medical support staff and so on " approximately 24,000 employees.
Recently the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO), the central health sector bar- gaining agency, and the Health Science Association of Saskatchewan (HSAS),which represents approximate- ly 1,800 technical support staff (audi- ologists, occupational therapists, perfusionists and so on), reached a negotiated settlement. This agreement provides 2 percent per year for a three- year agreement, expiring in March 2007, plus 2 percent added to the sixth step in the salary range. The latter pro- vision benefits 70 percent of the bar- gaining unit. This agreement is beyond the zero, 1 percent, 3 percent plus COLA mandate. Negotiations with other health sector unions are ongoing.
The most anticipated settlement has been the one between the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) and SAHO. SUN has proved to be par- ticularly militant and successful in bar- gaining over the last decade. In April 1999 it initiated an 11-day province- wide work stoppage, and it disobeyed back-to-work legislation and a subse- quent injunction. SUN was fined $120,000 for its actions. However, it later negotiated a three-year settlement that provided an increase of 11.5 per- cent over the term of the agreement. This was far in excess of the existing public sector mandate at that time.
On October 28, 2005, SUN agreed, subject to ratification, to a three-year agreement that provided 2.5 percent on April 1 of 2005, 2006 and 2007. As well, the agreement provides for an addition- al 2 percent, as of April 2007, for all classifications that were at step five of the salary range. The latter provision applied to 86 percent of the bargaining unit. At 7.5 percent to 9.5 percent, this settlement is richer than any public sec- tor agreement achieved to this point.
The collective bargaining mandate arrangements described here have, with minor revisions, existed for over 25 years. The current imbroglio, with the publicly announced mandate, the revised mandate, the reapplied man- date, the escalating mandate and now the attempt to revert to the hidden mandate, suggests an instability in institutional practices. This creates an opening to examine these arrange- ments and develop new ones that are publicly defensible and innovative, while also being fiscally responsible. The determination of financial mandates in the Saskatchewan public sector lacks clarity and transparency. For example, the research and method- ology used by the small staff of the Personnel Policy Secretariat is general- ly veiled in secrecy. Normally wage offers have been justified on the basis of the government’s limited financial resources, Saskatchewan having tradi- tionally been a ”œhave-not” province. This argument is losing strength as the province is profiting from its resource revenues and moving over to the ”œhave” side of the equalization table. Government must now have some way of determining, and defending publicly, a rate of salary expenditure that is appropriate for the money it clearly has. It is not sufficient to sim- ply say, ”œWe can afford more”; one must also be able to state clearly who gets what, and why. The mandate-set- ting process, already research-based, must be transparent and publicly defensible. This would permit the gov- ernment to set out the basis for its public sector wage offers.
To accomplish this, there should be a neutral administrative mechanism that would perform compensation research and analysis to determine the ”œgoing market rate” for various types of public service labour in various settings. This proposal is based on the idea, gen- erally accepted by unions, management and the public, that public sector organizations as employers should be as good as, but not better than, compara- ble private and public sector employers. Such a body would carry out compen- sation surveys and conduct analysis on the information gathered and make it available to the bargaining parties and to the public, and would receive input from the public sector unions and employers. In this manner, the bargain- ing parties would have research-based information on which to justify bar- gaining proposals. This arrangement would replace the present secretive arrangement for preparing collective bargaining financial mandates.
The Personnel Policy Secretariat is currently housed in the Department of Finance, but it was, for a brief period, located within the Public Service Commission. This suggests an uncertain- ty as to its proper organizational loca- tion. If it is to be an agency that serves both the bargaining parties, it cannot remain in the Department of Finance, given the inherent conflict of interest. It might be best if it were a stand-alone agency or, alternatively, if it were relo- cated to the Department of Labour.
It is not realistic to have a single financial mandate for different public sector employers who have different operating circumstances. To illustrate, SaskTel operates in a very competitive communications environment, which affects its ability to attract and retain highly skilled staff. By the same token, and with respect, the Department of Highways cannot be said to operate under the same competitive stresses. The collective bargaining financial mandates for these organizations should be different in order to reflect their different realities. Similarly, wages paid by other government organizations should reflect those paid by comparable organizations. While the idea that such organizations should develop mandate proposals on a business case basis has been dis- cussed, thus permitting varied man- dates, it has not been put into practice. A compensation research agency, as suggested here, would facilitate such arrangements.
The administration of health care in Saskatchewan has been decentral- ized into 12 community-based boards. Each board has differing operating environments, varying from those in the far north to those that serve urban populations and the rural communities in between. However, salary negotia- tions are conducted centrally for the entire system, as if this decentralization had not occurred. The Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations bargains with a number of unions rep- resenting various medical specialties and support services.
For efficient expenditure of health dollars, such bargaining should be dele- gated down to the Regional Health Board level. This would enable each Regional Health Authority and union to bargain the allocation of its salary resources according to its particular reality. This is not to say that central- ized bargaining should be abandoned, but rather that what was dealt with cen- trally would change so that the sub- sidiary principle applied. In other words, decisions should be made at the most decentralized level, and the cen- tralized body should not take action unless it is clearly more effective than action taken at a lower level. Thus, gross allocations on matters like wages and benefits would be bar- gained centrally, but their specific allocation would be decided locally. In effect, the size of the pie would be determined centrally, but how it will be sliced would be decided locally. Again, the proposed compensation research agency would support this change.
In the event that the parties fail to agree in local negotiations, the issue could be decided by interest arbitration. Typically governments resist interest arbitration because of the power it gives to unelected persons over financial management. The proposed arrange- ment would avoid this prospect.
The most surprising, indeed disap- pointing, thing is how bargain- ing arrangements in Saskatchewan do not reflect the inherent values of the community: that is to say, values respecting decentralized, consensual problem-solving. The current secre- tive and adversarial bargaining arrangement is almost like an invad- ing alien species, perhaps akin to the zebra mussel, which has attached itself and weighs down public sector bargaining. The whole financial foun- dation on which Saskatchewan public sector collective bargaining is based should be open to public discussion and resolution.