Monday, April 28, 2003

Liberals face regional problems halfway to next campaign
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Two years from today, the campaign buses will be rolling, election signs will be popping up and the sound-bites will be flying.
And despite some big problems in the so-called Heartland, the Liberals have reached the halfway point in their first term with much of their support intact.
The Liberals are sitting at about 45 per cent in the polls, enough to give them a comfortable majority. That's an unusual achievement, given the province's history over the last two decades. By the same point in their terms Glen Clark, Mike Harcourt and Bill Vander Zalm were all in deep trouble, with support for their parties mired below 30 per cent.
It's not all good news for the Liberals. They're are still down sharply from the 58-per-cent support they won in the election. Crunch the numbers, and you find that some 400,000 people who voted for Liberal candidates no longer support the party.
And the overall level of support masks some big potential problems for Liberal candidates - like Dave Chutter - in up to 35 ridings outside the Lower Mainland.
Step outside Vancouver and its sprawl, and the Liberal lead vanishes. Recall campaigns may be failing, but that doesn't mean things are safe for the MLAs.
On Vancouver Island, the NDP and Liberals are in a dead heat. The New Democrats are at 32 per cent, the Liberals at 32 per cent and the Greens at 27 per cent.
In the Interior and North the Liberals have 37-per-cent support, the NDP has 34 per cent and Greens 19 per cent.
The reasons aren't complicated. Under the Liberals, communities like Lillooert have seen much of the pain of the New Era, and few gains. Offices have been closed, health care services reduced and schools closed. Promised economic opportunities have remained just that - promises.
That's one reason the Liberals have been making such a big deal about their much mocked "Heartland" strategy, aimed at helping the rest of the province.
The poll results should alarm the Liberals. The NDP still has plenty of persistent problems of its own. But it's already seen as an alternative across much of the province. If the party can begin to take support away from the Greens as the election approaches, the Liberals will lose a lot of seats.
(The NDP has hired Gerry Scott to as party secretary, the top paid job. He's an experienced fund-raiser and campaign manager, generally seen as a good organizer. And he's been working with the David Suzuki Foundation, so he has an in with Green supporters.)
The Liberals need to be able to show that their plans are working to help the whole provincial economy, not just the Lower Mainland.
That's likely to be a challenge. A new report from the Credit Union Central of B.C. lowers growth projections for B.C. for this year. Chief economist Helmut Pastrick - a member of Finance Minister Gary Collins' advisory panel - says growth will be only two per cent this year and three per cent next. And he predicts continued problems for smaller cities and rural communities. Even if forest exports increase, jobs in the sector could disappear as companies increase operating efficiency, he says.
The Liberals face some tough challenges. Some they can control. It's within the government's ability to find ways to reduce the growing economic gap between Vancouver and the rest of the province. It's possible to give MLAs more opportunities to speak up for their communities.
But others will are difficult to manage. If SARS hurts the already weak B.C. economy, the Liberals will face the challenge of explaining where the promised growth went. If the strong Green Party support shifts to the NDP - that's at least a possibility - then many more Liberal MLAs will face defeat.
The Liberals still face no serious threats on their path to forming the government after the election in May 2005. But unless they address some serious problems, an awful lot of MLAs won't be around for a second term.
Footnote: Pastrick's new growth forecast - two per cent for this year - is bad news for Collins, who built his budget on a growth rate of 2.4 per cent. Slower growth means less revenue for government. The contingency allowance can handle the revenue shortfall, but the cushion is being nibbled away only weeks into the new fiscal year.

Hospital workers wisely trade wage cuts for jobs
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - What do you call a deal that commits hospital workers to opening up their contract and accepting longer hours, shorter vacations and pay cuts?
A success.
Union negotiators representing some 46,000 employees at B.C. hospitals have already accepted the deal, because it offers one large benefit. Some 15,000 layoffs could be avoided in return for the concessions.
Negotiators don't like the deal. But Hospital Employees' Union head Chris Allnutt says it's the best the unions could do while protecting the jobs of thousands of people.
The roots of the dispute are straightforward. The Liberals believe people who provide support services in the health care system - who prepare the food, or keep the hospitals clean, or work in the labs - are overpaid. And they set out to change that.
First the government passed legislation gutting the job protection provisions in the union contracts, making it possible to contract out all their work to private companies which would then hire new people to do the same work at lower wages.
And then they started the process. Already some 5,000 health care employees are set to be fired under privatization programs under way in the health regions.
The Liberals look sleazy on this one. The unions had asked Gordon Campbell before the election if he would rip up their contracts. No, he said in an interview published in the union newsletter. That would be wrong, and it's not something that he believed in. A government's word has to mean something.
And then Campbell turned around and broke his own word.
The unions felt betrayed and angry. And voters can reach their own conclusions about the significance of the gap between Campbell's words and his deeds.
But once the government tore up their contracts, the unions had few choices. They tried, unsuccessfully, to rally support against the privatization plans on the basis that health care would be jeopardized if services were contracted out to inexperienced companies with low-wage staff.
That didn't work.
That left the HEU with two options. Wait, as up to 20,000 jobs were lost, and see if the privatization process would go off the rails.
Or come to a deal that would protect jobs while providing the government with most of the savings it was seeking.
That's what has happened. Layoffs will be capped at the 5,000 already planned. The unions have agreed to extend their current contract by two years until 2006, and accepted sweeping concessions. Employees will give up 6.4 per cent in scheduled pay increases and take cuts of between 35 cents and $1 per hour, while increasing their work week by 1.5 hours and giving up five days of vacation. The government has will limit the layoffs, extend bumping rights and contribute $65 million to improve severance.
It's a painful deal, but it's a pragmatic one.
The reality is that the people who would have lost their jobs are not likely to find work that pays as well or offers comparable conditions. That's not just because jobs of any kind remain in short supply in much of B.C. The fact is that the contracts provided higher pay than the people could expect to earn using their skills in other workplaces, unionized or non-unionized. Protecting those jobs, even at lower wage levels, is important to those people.
For the government, the deal allows health authorities to avoid contracting out efforts that would be disruptive and risky. Health regions have enough to do managing cost pressures and frozen budgets without going through the hassle and risk of entrusting hospital cleaning or food preparation to the low bidder.
The deal still has to be approved by union members, who are divided. Some technical workers, who argue they are already underpaid, are particularly irked. But the people at risk are more motivated to approve the deal; it should pass.
Bargaining is about making the best of your situation, even if you don't like it. This agreement does that, for both sides.
Footnote: Why now, and not a year ago before the privatization push began disrupting the health care system and employees? Each side blames the other. But it remains striking that the Liberal government, unlike Ralph Klein, never proposed public sector wage cuts as a way of reducing government spending.