A friend of mine who happens to be a teacher in the city made a couple interesting observations as to why his union has now twice failed to ratify a contract.
The first issue is a general disconnection between the teachers’ bargaining team and the rank and file.
By a wide 63-percent margin, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation voted down a second recommended contract of 7.3-per-cent over four years plus a $700 first-year signing bonus. Last October, the teachers rejected a 5.5-per-cent, four-year deal recommended by their committee.
This suggests that those at the bargaining table don’t seem to know what their own members want. But when asked why this was the case, my teacher friend noted that rural teachers aren’t as eager to take the first offer handed to them as they used to be.
There used to be a certain level of predictability in province-wide unions like the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation largely based on where people lived.
Urban teachers may have their problem of too many teachers wanting to work in city schools — some rural teachers didn’t necessarily face. That said, rural teachers have never been compensated for working in smaller towns. Actually, they were usually the first to agree to small wager settlements because they knew their steady pay cheque was often better than what a lot of farmers were getting.
But with the demise of smaller farming units in the past 20 years in particular and the profitability of large farms in these better times in agriculture of late, there has been a decided shift in rural Saskatchewan, my teacher friend noted.
Rural teachers feel they are now falling behind — especially with the cost of living also rising in rural Saskatchewan. And seemingly unbeknownst to even their own bargaining team, they are demanding more to keep up.
Like anywhere else, rural Saskatchewan was a place where there was always some economic disparity. But traditional nature of Saskatchewan rural economy where it wasn’t always easy to make a buck was always a great equalizer.
For example, during the Great Depression when two-thirds of rural Saskatchewan teachers made less than $700 a year, the farmers and businesses paying their salaries were doing no better and sometimes worse.
This has changed a bit in the current rural Saskatchewan where the boom in oil, agriculture and potash has turned much of rural Saskatchewan on its head. That said, it has also created more economic disparity that rural Saskatchewan has seen in some time.
Consider the average wage at SaskPower now over $100,000 a year — partly driven by the overtime for linemen or workers running rural-based power plants at Poplar River and Boundary Dam. Consider what has happened to nurses’ salaries.
Combined with those oil workers and potash miners and the disposal income in the farming community and there is a lot of rural people out there that are thankfully doing rather well. This reality is apparent in sky-rocketing housing cost in smaller cities and towns.
However, some public servants like teachers or highway workers haven’t been doing quite as well.
Nor have all rural retail stores or restaurants necessarily kept pace. It’s been tougher on some rural businesses because of depopulation and the eagerness and opportunity of those in rural residents with disposal income to shop elsewhere.
And with an aging rural population on fixed incomes, First Nations living on reserves or even those remaining small farmers or business left behind by the boom, one can only wonder how those who are poorer and are going to keep up with the boom.
Such disparity may have an impact on not only rural Saskatchewan but also on the province as a whole.
All one really has to do is look at the unpredictability in these teachers’ negotiation to see the impact it is now having.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.