SaskTel officials criticize working conditions on the day of launch of the negotiation



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As SaskTel workers prepared to negotiate a new contract, the president of their union, turned by Regina, with some inflamed words to Prime Minister Scott Moe.

Jerry Dias, Unifor's national president, said the workers will not accept what the government has pushed so far – nor will they defend an arbitration agreement.

"The only agreement we are going to accept is an agreement that we agree on the negotiating table," Dias said.

"We are here today to tell the premier: we know how to solve, but we also know how to dance, so how do you want to do it?"

Citing past statements and experience at other bargaining tables, he said the provincial government has tried to "mandate" a low-wage agreement for two years, followed by small increases of one percent and two percent.

Dias said the chance of that happening is "zero."

The government responded that it could not comment on its negotiating position, but stated that "there is no definite mandate".

Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, speaks at a rally held at the Delta Hotel on Saskatchewan Drive before the start of bargaining efforts.

BRANDON MORE DIFFICULT /

Regina Leader-Post

Dias spoke on Tuesday in a conference room of the hotel packed with SaskTel employees. Pay was not his only complaint. Some told the Leader-Post that they are dissatisfied with working conditions at Crown, which has been repeatedly featured on lists of Canada's top employers.

But some workers say that times have changed, with jobs lost and a shift to casual and contractual jobs. Current casual employees say their hours have plummeted. The company requires flexibility, some say, without giving in return.

SaskTel CEO Doug Burnett argued that there is no pressure to add hired labor, but he said the cyclical nature of the business requires casual work.

"You have to align the workforce to meet your job demand," he said.

Immediately after the demonstration, the trade unionists went to exchange proposals with the administration. Burnett said that the question of casual work did not arise.

Starting in June, all six collective agreements with Unifor's Crown locations will be expired, including one (SaskEnergy) that has been on hold for more than one year. Dias said this has a positive effect: workers are stronger when they trade as a united front.

"Whatever the salary increases for one, it will be for everyone," he said.

Dave Kuntz, president of Unifor Local 1S, speaks on the podium as local members hear a "Stand Up for Crown Workers" rally held at the Delta Hotel on Saskatchewan Drive before the bargaining efforts begin.

BRANDON MORE DIFFICULT /

Regina Leader-Post

Agreements with six other non-Unifor Crown sector sites are also overdue.

Dias agreed that working conditions at SaskTel will be a problem as negotiations begin. Dan Bailey, Unifor's national representative in Saskatchewan, said that in recent years there has been a shift toward "precarious employment."

Hundreds of full-time employees were lost "by friction," according to Unifor.

The SaskTel data suggest that the change, although real, has been subtle. In 2015, 81.3% of Crown employees were classified as full-time permanent. In 2018, this dropped only slightly, to 79.8%.

But it was a smaller slice of a shrinking workforce. Over the same period, the total number of full-time equivalents fell from 3,827 to 3,569.

The share of temporary part-time workers increased from 13.1% to 14.3% in the average period.

Bailey said fewer hours mean fewer benefits. But the lighter load does not come with more flexibility, according to representatives of Unifor, as casual employees are required to accept about 80% of the shifts offered to them.

This affects family life, according to Bailey.

"It's awful," he said. "How do you hire a nanny for your child when you can not tell him that he's going to be there every day?"

Dave Kuntz, president of Unifor Local 1S, is on the podium and is preparing to speak at a rally held at the Delta Hotel on Saskatchewan Drive before the start of bargaining efforts.

BRANDON MORE DIFFICULT /

Regina Leader-Post

Burnett said that SaskTel strives to ensure that all employees are well treated and offer competitive salaries, benefits and working conditions. He said that casual employees are aware of the fluctuating potential of hours when they are hired.

In his opinion, SaskTel remains a great place to work.

"When I see what SaskTel offers compared to other companies, I believe we are a top-tier employer," he said.

But a SaskTel employee at the rally disagreed. Insisting on anonymity, he said his work as part-time casual makes him "the worst of the worst." He said he made a decent salary four years ago, but now he only works three shifts a week.

The worker said that it is impossible for him to book a holiday for himself. And he sees little hope of improvement. His department has added only a few full-time positions over its four-year term, the official said.

"It's awful," he said. "It's so unfair."

Bailey suggested that the changes were driven by the government's effort to find cost cutting to reduce deficits, pointing to the now abandoned pressure of a 3.5 percent reduction for all-public sector compensation.

Burnett acknowledged that the company is always trying to find savings but said that it is no different from any employer.

"We run the business to provide a strong financial return," he said. "So our plan calls for a reduction in the size of the workforce, but it is driven primarily by our business requirements."

He said he may or may not continue, depending on factors such as revenue growth and demand for land lines.

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