Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Union deals open door to a better government

VICTORIA - Give both the government and public sector unions top marks for finding their way to speedy contract settlements.
The deals don't just offer the pleasant prospect of four years free of labour battles. They're the first step towards important changes in the way the public sector works, changes that are important to everyone who relies on - and pays for - government services.
Finance Minister Carole Taylor acknowledged as much as she reacted to the flood of deals reached in the final hours of the month as unions raced for a share of the $1-billion signing bonus.
The negotiations were important in their own right. No rational government or union is keen on strikes and strife.
But the new approach to talks was just the start, Taylor said. "It has set the foundation for a new relationship," she said. "We're pleased that negotiators stepped up to the challenge to begin a dialogue and explore how we can improve services to British Columbians."
That's not just cheery rhetoric. The government has a problem. After four years of cuts, imposed contracts, mass firings and frequent union-bashing, public sector employees were understandably unhappy and demoralized.
A survey released last year by Auditor General Wayne Strelioff found government workers didn’t trust senior management and thought their departments were bad places to work. This wasn't the usual employee grumbling. Strelioff compared the survey results with effective organizations and warned B.C. is in trouble.
So why should you care if they're unhappy? For starters, people who feel abused do poorer work, especially when it comes to the extra effort critical to making organizations better.
But the problems go deeper. B.C. faces a significant skills shortage over the next several decades. Organizations seen as crummy places to work are going to be shunned by the best candidates. Why work somewhere grim, when you can find somewhere exciting and satisfying?
Premier Gordon Campbell says he's ready to sit down with public sector union leaders and start talking (although he's vague about what).
The agreements are a very good start, and both sides deserve credit for reaching them.
Taylor helped by promising early on that there would be money for settlements. She allocated enough money for raises of about 2.5 per cent a year for the next four years. That's enough to allow most employees to make at least a tiny real gain on inflation.
She also dangled a $1-billion carrot for unions that could settle by March 31, when almost all contracts expired. That allowed an average $3,700 signing bonus, a big boost for employees whose wages had been frozen or cut.
It was a good starting point. But unions still had to swallow some very deep anger over the last four years, when some were badly betrayed by the Liberals.
Both sides were able to bridge the gaps - the goal of negotiations in a mature bargaining relationship.
It's good news politically for the government. The public's strong support for the teachers - even after their strike was declared illegal - was a warning that people had tired of government union bashing.
Now there is likely labour peace until this time in 2010, after the Olympics and the next election. (Only likely because the BC Teachers' Federation contract doesn't expire until June. But the union is now isolated. If it demands much more than nurses or other workers, public support won't be as strong.)
That's time that can be used to build on the agreements and start overhauling labour relations in the public sector. The government needs an effective, motivated workforce, and it needs to be able to attract the best people.
Right now, it can't achieve either objective.
The good news is that the government recognizes the problem, and both sides have opened the door to a co-operative start at finding solutions.
It's a remarkable change from the first four years of confrontation.
Footnote: Critics say the new approach shows the government's use of legislation to gut contracts, fire thousands of workers and impose wages was a mistake. But the alternate argument is that the willingness to take a tough stand in the past established needed credibility for these talks. The reality is somewhere in between.


Anonymous said...

I got a real kick out of the T/C's big headline a couple of days ago. It was Taylor who made things work. Not really, the government decided to come up with money and actually bargain rather than rip up a few more contracts. Sure they may have discoverd the citizens found them rather heavy handed last time around, but really it's about the big show 2010. Let's wait and see how they deal with the teachers.

Anonymous said...

"B.C. faces a significant skills shortage over the next several decades."

It would do the BC Liberals well to do a deal with the some of the industrial unions to ensure labour peace on the Olympic facilities and to get the trades apprenticeships back on track.