SIAST faces possible strike

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Administration says problems with SGEU won’t affect students

Ed Kapp
News Writer

With the threat of a strike or lockout cast over Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) campuses across Saskatchewan, the future remains uncertain for 14,000 students, and another 2,000 staff members.

After working without a new contract for 16 months, the Saskatchwan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU) issued a strike notice to SIAST administration on Nov. 10, following a failed mediation attempt. Shortly thereafter, SIAST administration responded to the SGEU by putting the union on 48-hour lockout notice.

The last contract, which was signed in 2007 and mediated by an out-of-province arbitrator, covered 1,300 instructors and 700 professional services staff at SIAST’s four campuses in Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Regina, and Saskatoon.

The two parties, which are admittedly “far apart on compensation,” according to SIAST associate vice-president of human resources, Gary Earles, are predictably at odds over wages and benefits.

Earles said SIAST is offering an increase of four per cent in wages and benefits, while the union wants between a reported 15 to 17 per cent increase. However, SGEU attests that their contractual demands are more modest than Earles claimed.

“We tabled a final offer in our last round of bargaining,” said Tracy Kurtenback, chair of SGEU’s SIAST professional services negotiating committee. “It was a total compensation package that was sitting around 12.65 per cent.”

Although compensation is the main issue, there stands another roadblock between the two parties reaching an agreement. First, the SGEU and SIAST must agree on an objective mediator.

In an attempt to restart fledgling collective agreement negotiations – and in response to an SGEU mediation request contained in the union’s strike notice – SIAST agreed to have the Ministry of Labour and Workplace Safety coordinate mediation between the two parties.

The SGEU, in turn, rejected the government-appointed mediator, stating they believe it would be unfair for a mediator selected by Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government to conduct the mediation process. SGEU president Rob Bymoen noted this government “[has] virtually stripped public sector workers of their right to strike, and even made it more difficult for workers to join unions”.

“We have no reason to believe that an individual appointed by this government will act in an impartial manner,” said Jim Steele, chair of the SGEU bargaining committee. “The government is an interested party in these negotiations, since it both funds and oversees the province’s post-secondary institutions. Government is affected by the outcome of bargaining. It has no right to impose a hand-picked mediator in this case.”

Although it is looking less likely that both parties will be able to come to any sort of agreement in the near future, both sides have ensured the public that they have no intentions of disrupting any of the 14,000 students’ activities.

SIAST has assured students that strike shifts will be rotated to ensure that classes will not be permanently stopped during any job action.

Earles has also said SIAST is concerned about the uncertainty of students, and has proposed both parties hold off on any job action while plans regarding the mediation process are worked out. He further stated the only way SIAST employees would be locked out would be in response to job action that it felt was having a, “significant detrimental impact on programming and students.”

Regardless of both sides’ intentions, the impending job action is weighing heavily on many of SIAST’s students. As one student, who requested anonymity, said, “It’s hard to focus on my school work and stay on track, heading into graduation with what’s going on with the union and SIAST. Whatever happens with them is going to have a pretty profound impact on a lot of people; students, staff, administration – everyone.”

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