A labour lawyer says public sector employers can ask unions to reopen contracts, but that would be difficult.
``A union and an employer have the ability to renegotiate contracts if they wish - the thing is an employer can't force the union to come back to the bargaining table prior to the expiry of the collective agreement,'' said Keir Vallance, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
Vallance says governments could also pass legislation to try to change contracts, ``but that has its own set of issues that arise.''
The Saskatchewan government has sent letters to all public employers telling them to hold the line on wages or it suggests there could be layoffs.
``More specifically, for the government fiscal year 2017-18 total compensation costs will be no greater than 2016-17,'' states the letter.
``Furthermore, government is asking employers and unions to consider options to reduce compensation costs, both in the immediate term and on a more long-term basis in order to lessen the need for actions that would reduce the size of government,'' it continues.
Vallance says the letter sounds like an ultimatum.
``I guess that's the stick here,'' he said.
``I don't know that the government has much of a carrot to offer the public sector unions in this scenario, so it seems to me like the stick is if you don't manage to freeze your compensation at existing levels, then we're going to have to look at layoffs. It's difficult to see what other alternatives are open to public employers to reduce their employment costs.''
The province is trying to save money because a big drop in natural resource revenue has pushed the government's deficit for this year to nearly $1 billion.
Premier Brad Wall said in year-end media interviews that public sector workers will be asked to help tackle the deficit, potentially through wage rollbacks or layoffs
Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich says the government ``is attempting to scapegoat the public sector workers'' by demanding they pay for the deficit.
Hubich says any attempt to reopen existing agreements is a breach of contract.
``I don't know why a union would agree, given the kind of treatment that they've received from this government, to do any favours for them,'' said Hubich.
Vallance says it's not clear where courts might come down on the issue, if it goes that far.
A 2007 Supreme Court
of Canada decision protected the right to collective bargaining. The court sided with a group of British Columbia health unions seeking to overturn a 2002 provincial law which essentially erased portions of their contracts.
But in 2015, the court dismissed an appeal by two RCMP
officers who challenged a government decision to roll back three years of wage increases that were agreed to before the onset of 2008 global financial crisis.
Last year, the high court overturned a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling that found the province did not violate teachers' rights to negotiate in their collective agreement class sizes and the number of children with special needs in each classroom.
``If the government decides to step in with legislation, the question is going to become how far do they go and is that too far,'' said Vallance.
``If it's a simple rollback of wages, well (the RCMP
case) suggests that maybe that's OK.''
There was no immediate comment from the Saskatchewan government.
The Saskatchewan Party government has gone to court in the past over labour issues.
The party introduced essential services legislation shortly after it first won power in 2007. Court challenges filed by labour groups in 2008 went all the way to the Supreme Court
In January 2015, the high court struck down a section of the law that prevented some public sector employees from striking.
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