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URFA president Dennis Fitzpatrick

A union president at the University of Regina is concerned about a recent provincial government directive to freeze public sector wages.

“Basically, they’ve said, ‘You gain no more money. If you pay people, you’re going to have to lay people off,’” said Dennis Fitzpatrick, president of University of Regina Faculty Association.

On Friday, Jan. 13, the Government of Saskatchewan sent a total of 40 letters to public employers, including the Public Service Commission, Crown corporations and service providers in education and health.

One letter was sent to school board chairs from education minister Don Morgan. “All public sector employers are expected to ensure that there are no increases to the total cost of employee compensation as a result of any ongoing negotiations, or negotiations for contracts yet to expire,” Morgan wrote.

The reason for the directive is the “very challenging fiscal situation” the province is facing, according to the letter. In a mid-year financial update in November, the government announced a forecasted deficit of $806 million, double what was previously projected.

Fitzpatrick teaches chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Regina. This is his third year as president of URFA. He’s aware of the letters and said the wage freeze sends a mixed message about the value of education.

“On one hand you’ve got government data telling us that university education is really, really good because we create people who go out and get really good jobs and pay lots of taxes, and on the other hand you say, ‘Well, we can’t afford it.’ So I’m kind of caught in the contradiction,” he said.

URFA is the bargaining agent for 1,400 academic and APT (administrative, professional, and technical) employees at the university. The organization begins bargaining meetings in the spring. Their current contracts expire on June 30.

Fitzpatrick said it’s not about just getting more money. He said URFA cares about human equity and occupational health and safety, “the whole gamut of activities which look out at the environment that not only our members work in but the students learn in.”

The letter says compensation costs will remain the same in the government fiscal year of 2017-2018. “Negotiations need to commence immediately in order to achieve these goals for in scope employees prior to April 1, 2017. There may be a need to consider such things as freezing in range increments, general wage increases and performance/bonus pay, for both in and out of scope employees in order to meet the requirement to contain and control the total cost of public sector compensation," it states.

URFA didn’t receive a letter from the government, but as the organization heads into bargaining in the spring, Fitzpatrick said the letters send a clear message: “The government’s directives will frame negotiations.”

The University of Regina administration was unable to comment at press time.

Out of the 40 letters sent by the government, five were sent to organizations in the education sector, including Northlands Regional College, Sask Polytechnic, and the southern regional colleges.

CUPE 5791 represents support staff who work at the U of R, such as janitors, security and other front-line staff.

President Jamie Mellor wouldn’t comment on the possible wage freeze. “We are at the negotiating table and need to remain in good faith,” she said in an email.