Thursday, March 16, 2006

HEU deal a milestone in public sector talks

VICTORIA - Things are looking good for the government's bid to reach quick labour settlements.
Reaching agreements with teachers and nurses will still be tough. And more bumps like the one created this week by the generous deal with doctors are still ahead.
But the progress so far, especially in reaching deals with the Hospital Employees' Union and the BC Medical Association, has set the stage for more settlements.
It's a change from the wretched labour-management relations of the Liberals' first term, and a vindication of Finance Minister Carole Taylor's plan for a $1-billion fund to encourage quick deals.
The count is up to 11 tentative agreements as I write this, covering about 75,000 workers. The latest is a contract for about 38,000 health sector workers.
That's a big deal. The workers, mostly represented by the Hospital Employees' Union, were battered and betrayed by the Liberals. (Gordon Campbell specifically promised the union that he would respect their contracts, then gutted them, clearing the way for mass firings and wage cuts.) Talks were made more difficult by legislation barring the union from negotiating job security protection.
Despite the hurdles, the parties reached a deal. The government gets a four-year contract, allowing some needed stability (and talking the contract term past the 2010 Olympics and the next election).
And the union got a decent wage increase and some job protection. The average wage increase will be about 2.6 per cent a year, enough to keep up with inflation. The minimum will be about 8.5 per cent over four years, but some people - in high demand categories - will get up to 32 per cent.
The deal fits within the government's wage mandate, which allowed for average increases of 2.7 per cent a year, and reflects its desire to see wage increases reflect market conditions.
But it couldn't have been sold to HEU members on its own, particularly after so many had seen wages cut.
That's where the $1-billion bonus fund for unions that reach deals before their old ones expire comes into play. The money translates into about $3,800 for each of the 300,000 public sector employees.
The HEU has negotiated a $3,700 signing bonus from the fund, plus another $500 for "past skills enhancements." For an employee at the low end of wage scales, that's a one-time payment equal to 16 per cent of salary. There's also renewed limits on future job losses to contracting out.
The deal came just days after the much richer BCMA deal that some observers feared would disrupt other talks. All doctors got a 10.4-per-cent fee increase over four years. Family physicians - more than half the total - will get 19.1 per cent. It was much more than other unions were being offered, and produced some angry responses.
But the BCMA deal may have helped. It set a range for settlement. And even more usefully the deal, which won't be ratified until May, forced Taylor to back off her claim that the $1 billion would disappear March 31 unless contracts were in place. There's room for flexibility if an agreement is almost there, she has now conceded.
The next challenge is an agreement with the BCGEU. The union has walked away from talks, but the chances for settlement should still be good. The two sides appear far apart - the union apparently wants a 10-per-cent increase over three years, the employer 8.5 per cent over four years. and contracting out remains a major issue.
But given the other settlements, and the advantages for both sides in reaching an agreement within the next two weeks, there's reason for optimism.
A BCGEU deal would help the government in difficult talks with nurses and teachers. The pattern for bargaining has been set, and the government can argue the need for fairness across the board.
The government's strategy - and its recognition that the public was tired of imposed settlements - has been working, and momentum is on the side of negotiated contracts.
Footnote: The teachers' strike last fall was a turning point for the government. The public support for the BCTF shocked the government and sent the message that continued rough tactics wouldn't be tolerated. Vince Ready reports March 31 on a new way of bargaining teachers' contracts.
But the government might argue that it's reaching these deals because it has established a willingness to impose contracts on its own terma.


Anonymous said...

Gosh now in the next three years or so our daughters pay will be back to about what it was before Gordo tore up the HEU contract. The bonus will probrably move them into the next tax bracket and a good percentage of that will end up as taxes, as its a one time deal.

Anonymous said...

I anticipate the BCGEU signing shortly as George Heyman seams to be the most reasonable out of all major union leaders. He plays hardball in the media, but won't sacrifice the best deal for his members in order to make a political statement.

Out of the major unions, as Paul noted, only the teachers and nurses would be left. Those two also happen to have the most politicized leadership.

Basically everyone is signed up, except for the usual suspects who will never be happy.

It is also obvious that the Liberals have learned some lessons, as Paul noted, over the last few years. The billion dollars made available for contract settlements could go down as one of the shrewdest moves made by any BC government in contract negotiations.

Having all major public sector union contracts coming up at similar times, especially given the past history of the Liberals, could have been disastrous. By making a substantial bonus available to individual members and setting a time limit on the bonus forced union leaders to make reasonable settlements. It appears the Liberals turned a potential disastrous situation into a positive one.

I would also say Campbell’s appointment of Carole Taylor as the finance minister was a stroke of genius as well. Having a respected and successful so called small L women, with no connections to the previous Liberal government, as the point person for this negotiation seams to have eased the union government tension enough to reach a settlement.

Anonymous said...

"Out of the major unions, as Paul noted, only the teachers and nurses would be left. Those two also happen to have the most politicized leadership." Says one comment.

Since the teachers havn't even started negotiations , just what they are planning is not known. I read somewhere that the nurses are doing well in negotiations. Ending up with a contract a bit less than where they were two years ago in HEU means a lot of money saved by the government in those two years and lots of hard times for the HEU members who were fired. Those folks get to vote provincially and no doubt will remember losing their jobs for no real reason beyond the premier deciding to tear up a negotiated settlement.

The man simply cannot be trusted.

Lots of turmoil as folks scrambled for jobs at far less than their previous salary. Many have signed on to HEU again as they simply couldn't survive on the small wages offered by contracted out companies, who obvious made lots of bucks. so much for privatization of government services
I do note the contracting out has been reduced to around 400. We can see the higher paid trades keeping an eye on Gordon.

Anonymous said...

The spin by the boys at brand x is most amazing as though it was all government. But what will happen after the Olmpic Drain is over. Will unions be beat up again.