Sask. Trade Unions enduring tough economic times, rolling back wages

LP published on: January 6, 2017 | Last Updated: January 9, 2017 7:41 AM CST

As Saskatchewan’s economy continues to struggle, trade unions in the province are needing to find ways of staying competitive. Garnet Greer, business manager at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), says there has been talk of lowering wages for its members to weather the economic storm.

Alberta’s IBEW local 424 reduced its commercial wages at the end of 2016. “We see it coming our way,” he said. “Our province is resource based and every resource now is probably at the bottom of the cycle, so with that, construction is the first to dry up.”IBEW is looking at other options as well, like changing scheduling or bringing on more apprentices. “It’s not always monetary reductions,” he said, likening the current downturn to the one seen in the early ’90s.

The International Association of Ironworkers Local 771 has roughly 300 people unemployed right now. Business manager Colin Daniels says that, “right now, we’re feeling the effects of the economy downturn” and that “there’s nowhere to go in Western Canada right now so it’s pretty tight all over.” Already the union adjusted its commercial rates, moving hourly wages from $53.48 to $46.04.

“You’ve got to be competitive, right?” says Daniels. The economic downturn is the first for many ironworkers who started working around 2008, when the economy started growing. “It’s been an eye-opener for some of these young guys who got in the trade about eight, nine years ago,” he says. “They’ve never really been laid off. “All the toys that come with making money — houses, boats, cars — are falling at the wayside.

“Now they can’t make the payments,” says Daniels. Business manager for Local 179 Plumbers and Pipefitters 179 Bill Peters says they are feeling the pressure on the commercial side more than the industrial side of business. “We’re still picking up some of the larger jobs,” he says. “Things are slowing down, take a look around Regina there isn’t as much (getting) built.” For now, he is staying positive and says they aren’t in a position where they need to reduce wages in order to stay competitive.

“To cry wolf yet? No,” he says, noting there is still the Co-Op Refinery and other projects in the province needing welders and pipefitters. We’ve never really taken huge increases as we went up.” He also points out that, “when we get our journeymen papers, that’s a journey” and as such, “somewhere along the line, there’s a job down No. 1 Highway.”

Trade unions aren’t the only unions having to take steps to deal with the economy: Premier Brad Wall suggested public sector unions may have to face wage rollbacks, as well.