REGINA — Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says the government is cutting compensation costs across the public sector by about 3.5 per cent in the coming fiscal year, but unions say the move is an attack on workers.
Wall said Tuesday that he expects the savings to come through negotiations with unions.
The government won't prescribe any specific measures, such as forcing workers to take unpaid days off, he said.
"We're not negotiating the target. We've set it. We want to achieve 3.5 per cent worth of savings and now we want to allow the collective bargaining process to work its way through to achieving that target," Wall said at the legislature in Regina.
"It's not an ultimatum. It's a target."
The negotiations will apply to contracts that have expired or are about to expire. For example, the current agreement for more than 13,000 teachers expires at the end of August and negotiations are set to begin in May.
The government won't reopen existing agreements, said Wall.
All MLAs and cabinet ministers will also take a 3.5 per cent salary cut. Staff in the premier's office, as well as ministers' offices, will take nine unpaid days off a year to reduce their pay by about 3.5 per cent.
Both measures are expected to save about $500,000 a year.
Wall said the 3.5 per cent cut to public sector wages could save the government about $250 million.
"You know, we don't do this easily," he said.
"This isn't a quick decision to make and that's why we're going to lead first from the elected side, and then request that the public sector employers sit down with unions as their contracts come due and negotiate with this overall goal in mind, knowing it's not going to be easy."
The government is trying to save money because of a big drop in revenue from oil and gas, potash and uranium. Tax revenue is also lower than forecast and crop insurance claims are up $250 million because of a late harvest.
Wall said last month that the deficit is up to about $1.2 billion.
Finance Minister Kevin Doherty had floated the idea of forcing public servants to take unpaid days off — already dubbed "Wallidays" — as a way to tackle the deficit.
Wall said no unpaid days off will be imposed on the public sector, but unions could look at that as one option to reach the 3.5 per cent cut. There could also be a reduction in overtime, for example, he said.
"We want to leave it to the bargaining tables, but we're serious," said Wall.
Wage rollbacks, layoffs in health care and education and tax increases are also being considered.
Unions were already planning a rally at the legislature Wednesday to protest any public sector cuts and reacted to Tuesday's announcement with outrage.
"There's lots of places that he could look to (save money), but he's not prepared to," said Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich.
"He's just looking at workers and that underlines and illustrates that he and his government are out of ideas, out of money and looking for someone else to blame."
Hubich also says it's one thing for the premier to take a 3.5 pay cut, but it's tougher for lower paid workers.
"It's much easier to absorb at a high salary than it is for someone doing janitorial work ... who makes $25,000 or $30,000," he said. "Every penny they earn goes back to sustaining their life."
Interim NDP Leader Trent Wotherspoon said New Democrat members of the legislature will accept the wage cut too. But Wotherspoon said cabinet ministers should also take a 20 per cent cut to their allowances.
Public sector workers shouldn't be attacked for the deficit, he added. Just because politicians are taking a 3.5 per cent pay cut doesn't give Wall permission "to cut the pay of any worker in Saskatchewan," said Wotherspoon.
"We're going to fight him tooth and nail."
Jennifer Graham, The Canadian Press