Friday, February 10, 2006

BCGEU strike vote should push both sides to look for deal

VICTORIA - Things have just got a lot more intense in public sector contract talks.
The BCGEU's George Heyman walked into a press conference here Friday and set the stage for a quick settlement by March 31, or a long tough battle.
Heyman said his union is taking a strike vote. It's a dead clever move.
Up until now the government had taken the initiative on the timing of talks. Finance Minister Carole Taylor said $1 billion in special funding was available for unions that sign agreements by March 31, when almost all the current contracts expire. That's about $3,300 per employee, a healthy incentive.
But the money is from the surplus in this fiscal year, Taylor said, and it will vanish at midnight March 31.
It's a good tactic. The money is on top of a $4.7-billion provision for compensation increases over four years. That's enough to allow an average increase of 2.7 per cent. The $1 billion gives unions a chance to get ahead of inflation and catch up after the wage freeze.
And the deadline means unions feel more pressure to settle than the government negotiators, and thus should be more willing to compromise.
Now the BCGEU will have a strike mandate from its members. The union can't strike while the current contract is in place. But members will be able to walk out at midnight March 31 when the agreement expires. And they would be fueled by anger that the $1 billion was taken off the table.
Now government negotiators will also feel pressure to compromise in order to get a deal.
What are the chances?
It's impossible to assess negotiations if you aren't at the table. Heyman says government negotiators are refusing to consider proposals to limit contracting our and privatization. The union's members have seen 7,000 jobs lost over the last five years. Now they want some guarantees around security.
Employers hate those kinds of guarantees. In a few years someone may figure out a way to save millions of dollars, and improve service, by contracting out a government function. Employers want some freedom to claim those benefits.
But there is usually a middle ground, provisions that offer some security for employees and some freedom for management.
The government should be pushing hard for a deal with the BCGEU. The union has been pragmatic since the Liberals were elected. It accepted the two-year wage freeze and the job losses, negotiating protection for some workers in exchange. And it has made an effort to co-operate with Taylor's agenda.
And there's a chance to reach a reasonable wage deal that could be the pattern for other settlements. Heyman is talking about an increase matching Alberta's recent settlement - about 3.3 per cent a year - plus catch-up on the four per cent lost to inflation during the wage freeze.
That's more than the government has planned. But if the $1 billion is factored in, it's not much more. The parties are close enough that an agreement could likely be found after the usual threats and warnings of disaster.
The government should be pushing hard for a deal after last fall's teachers' strike. That was a turning point. The public had mostly accepted the government's early rough treatment of public sector workers as necessary, and a response to excessive settlements under the NDP.
But the BC Teachers' Federation kept solid public support even after the strike was declared illegal. The government was trounced in the public opinion war. The BCGEU is determined to make that happen again.
The first agreement is going to be the toughest. No union wants to risk getting less than those that follow, and some have much greater demands - including making up the 15-per-cent wage cuts imposed in some sectors.
Getting a deal with the BCGEU would be a huge advantage in talks with everyone from doctors to teachers.
Both sides now have a reason to bend before the March 31 deadline.
Footnote: Heyman said the union has been told the government plans to use a cabinet order to remove 700 employees from the bargaining unit, including those working for the Film Commission and the Oil and Gas Commission. The current contract would initially apply, but the employer would subsequently seek a new deal.


Anonymous said...

In Gord We Trust

"If the government has a good case for exclusion, it could apply to the Labour Relations Board like any other employer in the province."

Campbell & Co. have repeatedly shown that they have no concept of what real 'good faith' collective bargaining is.

Don't forget that there is also the little issue of the under funded pension plan - it will cost the workers ~1.5%.

The BC Liberals are looking for a 4 year deal (who wants an Olympic strike?). Masses of public servants will reach retirement age in the next 4 years as the boomers age out - there will be plenty of slack. for the province to offer job security.

Anonymous said...

Gordo figures he is pretty smart because for a number of years he got away with chopping up contracts and privatizing sections of workers who , till he took over had some job security. Close to our home, the new era gang screwed over the retired members medical and dental agreement. (Now in court)He simply cannot be trusted and even with a small majority, he still , when the talking is all over, do a lot more damage to the citizens of this province.
As for the LRB, heck he has been sanctioned by the ILO a number of times. That guy won't stop hurting people till he gets the boot.
He fill funnel bunches of money to the olympic group who see no reason to stay on budget. He hopes to be the guy , front and center when the thing gets underway. Hopefully he will be out looking for a job well before the event.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

I stopped reading the papers and have been slow to warm to my computer's ability to pass along stories about my smoking province. Good to find your site Paul.