03/05/2017 05:00 EST | Updated 03/06/2018 00:12 EST

Labour strife, deficit as spring sitting of Saskatchewan legislature starts

REGINA — Labour strife and a ballooning deficit will be front and centre during the Saskatchewan legislature's spring sitting which starts Monday.

Finance Minister Kevin Doherty has floated the idea of forcing public servants to take unpaid days off — already dubbed "Wallidays" after Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall — as a way to tackle the province's $1.2-billion deficit.

Bob Bymoen, head of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union, said labour groups believe that would require legislation and they're waiting to see if it will be introduced this spring.

"If the government tables legislation forcing public-sector employees to take an unpaid day off, we will be vocal. Our members are quite concerned about that," Bymoen said.

"Many of our members can't even get days off to take vacation, because of the demands inside the workplaces, so it's a really mixed message about the Wallidays."

Unpaid days off are not new.

In 1993, former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon's Progressive Conservative government forced public-sector workers to take off unpaid days which came to be known as "Filmon Fridays."

And former Ontario premier Bob Rae's NDP government used the same tactic, also in 1993, with so-called "Rae Days."

"On the other hand, we've seen with this government where sometimes they have a bunch of this hype going into the budget day and then it's relatively quiet or a non-issue budget," said Bymoen. "So we'll have to see what happens."

Unions are planning a rally at the legislature on Wednesday.

The budget is to be released March 22. The government has said wage rollbacks, tax increases and layoffs in health care and education are being considered to help balance the books.

Bymoen pointed out the government announced in the March 2010 budget that it was reducing the size of the public service by 15 per cent over four years.

"Without doing a major change in programming, they don't have the people to cut. To say that they're going to take another day off, and then to bring people back on overtime, that makes no sense."

Wall could not be reached for comment.

Trent Wotherspoon, the Opposition NDP's interim leader, did not know if legislation would be required to force workers to take unpaid days, but criticized the idea.

"What the premier is threatening lacks any basic decency," he said. "It's about breaking a commitment to workers across Saskatchewan. It's about making economic matters worse at a time where we need to be working to create jobs."

He said his party's focus will be on stopping what he called "callous and damaging cuts" to health care and education.

The New Democrats will have a new member on their side of the chamber this sitting.

Ryan Meili won a byelection on Thursday in the Saskatoon Meewasin constituency. The seat had been held by the governing Saskatchewan Party, but became vacant when MLA Roger Parent died last fall.

The win boosts the NDP to 11 seats. The Sask. Party has 49 seats and there is one Independent.