By Joel van der Veen
DAVIDSON — Members of Unifor stopped by Greg Brkich’s office recently with a message for the Arm River MLA.
About 25 union members gathered on the sidewalk on Washington Avenue during the noon hour on May 4 to protest a recent bill on Crown corporations.
Bill 40, passed in the provincial legislature on April 26, sets a definition for privatization, allowing up to 49 per cent of a Crown corporation, such as SaskTel or SGI, to be sold.
Lorne Hill, chief steward for Unifor Local 3 in Moose Jaw, said the bill amounts to breaking up assets that belong to the people of Saskatchewan.
“This current provincial government has no mandate to put our assets up for sale,” Hill said.
The Unifor members, all SaskTel employees, were in Davidson on May 4 for a provincial meeting. They marched to the MLA’s office during their lunch break.
They carried signs and cheered during Hill’s speech, responding to his criticism of Sask Party MLAs with calls of “Shame!” and “Liars!”
Brkich’s office was closed for the noon hour, and the protest drew few onlookers, but those gathered were not discouraged.
“Whether Greg was here or not today,” said Hill, “we want all members of the Legislative Assembly to know our stance on this issue.”
He accused the government of “risking the assets of future generations,” adding that SaskTel has paid off $500 million in dividends to the province over the last decade.
“That is tax dollars that people don’t have to pay out of their pockets,” said Hill, explaining that the protesters want to promote unity and not division. “We want to support everybody, we want to protect what is rightfully theirs.”
The NDP has also criticized the bill, with opposition leader Trent Wotherspoon calling it “an incredible bertrayal of Saskatchewan people.”
Greg Brkich spoke to the Leader in the bill’s defense on Wednesday, arguing that it would strengthen, not weaken, the Crowns by protecting 51 per cent of them from privatization.
He characterized the bill as “housekeeping” in case an opportunity for partnership comes along.
In the case of SaskTel, he said, partnerships could make the company more competitive by connecting them with new technology.
He also said the bill could bring new investment dollars, giving the example of pension plans.
“There’s lots of Saskatchewan investment money that’s flowing out to entities in other provinces,” he said.
Brkich dismissed opposition criticism of the bill: “The world’s always coming to an end . . . That’s their role, to try to light as many fires as they can at that end.”
He also recalled that former NDP premier Roy Romanow had talked about looking for potential partners for SaskTel, back in 2000.
A news release from Unifor pointed to Manitoba as an example, arguing that the privatization of the provincial telecom MTS led to higher phone bills there.
“It could mean a decrease, too,” Brkich countered in response. “It very well could be cheaper rates and better coverage, with more investment coming in.”
Unifor represents around 3,300 SaskTel employees, including technicians, account and service representatives, and clerical and administrative staff.