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.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Children's ministry due for big changes

Here's a news story I did today. Quite an extraordinary development. It is hard to see the benefit of leaving the ministry without a deputy minister through a very challenging time.
And it is hard to accept the repeated claims that all is well when the premier's office reaches to South Africa for help.
Du Toit comes with a great reputation. It's a good bet that her stay will be much longer than three months.
It's also a good bet that the children and families ministry will get much more money in this month's budget.

B.C.'s embattled children and families' ministry has replaced its
top bureaucrat and turned to a South African child care expert for help.
The ministry has struggled with a string of problems, including a massive
restructuring that is years behind schedule and a controversy over its handling
of child deaths, including the high profile case of Sherry Charlie.
Jessica McDonald, deputy minister to the premier, said the decision to move
Alison MacPhail from the ministry's top job was unrelated to the controversies.
MacPhail, who is moving to a new position in the attorney general's ministry,
was interested in a change sometime in the next year, McDonald said. "I think
we have made the best decision in making the change now," she said.
The departure leaves the ministry without a deputy minister as it prepares to
deal with a string of potentially damaging reports, including reviews by Child
and Youth Officer Jane Morley and Ted Hughes. Associate deputy minister Arn van
Iersel will be acting deputy.
McDonald said she wanted to see the results of Hughes' review of the ministry's
operations before hiring a new deputy minister. "I'm not going to prejudge the
information that will come in from Mr. Hughes," she said.
Hughes first report is due Feb. 28.
McDonald said the premier's office has hired Lesley du Toit of South Africa on
a three-month contract to advise on child and youth services.
Du Toit will focus on the ministry's attempt to move to new regional
authorities, including five new aboriginal authorities.
She will also help the government respond to the Hughes inquiry recommendations
when they are released.
Du Toit is executive director of the Child and Youth Care Agency for
Development in Pretoria. She's best known for being tapped in 1995 by Nelson
Mandela to help develop child care and protection systems in South Africa.
"She has an outstanding international reputation," McDonald said.
Du Toit has also been working since 2002 on a number of initiatives in B.C.,
including a government-funded international advisory panel for the children and
families' ministry.
The three-month contract will see her paid $60,000, to include salary and
McDonald said the contract could be extended.
Suzanne Williams of the Institute for Child and Rights Development said Du
Toit, who has worked with the institute on several projects, is a great choice.
"Anyone would be very lucky to have Lesley," she said.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Great Bear deal shows B.C. adapting to a new world

VICTORIA - Nine years ago it was called the Midcoast Timber Supply area, and the government's interest was in seeing it logged.
Environmental groups were a nuisance, or in the words of then premier Glen Clark, "enemies of British Columbia."
And First Nations were pretty much irrelevant to any land use discussion.
Flash forward to this week for a reminder of just how extraordinarily things have changed.
For starters, it's now the Great Bear Rainforest, the clever name coined by the environmental groups back in 1996 when they wanted to win support for protecting the area.
And when Premier Gordon Campbell proudly announced a new land use deal for the region he shared the platform - and lots of praise - with First Nations and the same environmentalists who had been so maligned.
The new reality has arrived. First Nations have established a legal right to a say in decisions that affect land they are claiming as traditional territories.
Environmental groups have built political clout within the province, and shown a consistent ability to marshal international support to put economic pressure on industry and government.
After a bumpy start - especially with First Nations - the Liberal government has accepted the new reality, and showed with this announcement an ability to make the most of it.
On the day Campbell announced the new plan, it got big favourable news coverage across North America and around the world. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times International Herald Tribune and hundreds of others ran stories. Britain's Channel 4, in a typical coverage, ran film of beautiful scenery and playful bears and hailed "a major blow for preserving the planet's wildlife."
In terms of tourism promotion, figure a multimillion-dollar PR coup. The government's communication shop - with big help from the environmental groups, who have excellent press contacts - made the most of the opportunity.
The local impact of the land use plan is tougher to sort out.
The plan completes a process begun under the NDP. It covers a huge stretch of the coast, from just north of Powell River to Alaska. About one-third of the land will be protected from development. The rest will be open to commercial activities, including logging, but under a new Ecosystem Based Management regimen. Committees will review plans for each area, balancing environmental protection and the economic benefits and losses from any planned activities.
The forest industry was represented in the land use talks, and at the announcement. For the companies, any move towards certainty is valuable after all this time.
There are costs to his kind of agreement.
For starters, B.C. has put up $30 million for a new First Nations' economic development fund, and hopes the Harper government will match it. Environmental groups have raised another $60 million, mostly from U.S. foundations, for a First Nations fund to help with environmental issues.
All in, it will be $120 million. A lot of money, but less if it's considered a payment for allowing resources to be removed from lands claimed by First Nations while the treaty process continues.
The increased protection areas will also cost money. The annual allowable cut for the region had been estimated at four million cubic metres. The new land use plan will see that fall to about 3.1 million, a potential loss of jobs and government revenue.
There are benefits too. Certainty means more investment on a range of fronts.
And the reality is that there was no alternative. Everyone involved recognized a compromises would have to be reached or nothing would happen, and government brokered the deal.
It's not likely a model that will be repeated across the province. Most land use issues are less complex and polarized.
But on the big issues, things like coalbed methane, offshore gas and fish farms, expect some similar resolution of the inevitable conflicts.
The world has changed. B.C. has no choice but to acknowledge the new reality, and make the best of it.
Footnote: The government's announcement didn't make any mention of the $120-million fund for First Nations, or the province's contribution. Lands Minister Pat Bell said the government didn't want to highlight the fund until the new federal government had a chance to consider the $30-million request. Expect new Liberal David Emerson to deliver a fairly quick yes.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Emerson, Harper deal democracy another blow 

VICTORIA - Pragmatically, David Emerson's jump into Stephen Harper's cabinet is probably good news for B.C.
But it still stinks.
This is a politician who only three weeks ago was telling voters in his riding that he believed deeply in the Liberal Party, and that they should believe in him.
They did. He was elected with 43 per cent of the vote. And now he's betrayed them.
Emerson didn't just campaign as a strong Liberal. He warned that a Stephen Harper government would plunge Canada into a "black hole."
The Conservative party was made up of "angry" and "heartless" individuals who would destroy Canada's social programs and don't like immigrants, Emerson said. "They're uncomfortable with ethnic minorities," he said. "They try to dance around it and create partisan attempts to win those votes, but I think everybody sees through that."
The Conservatives were even too dim to understand the importance of the Pacific Gateway transportation project, he said.
On election night Emerson was passionate about the need to battle the Conservatives. "I'm going to be Stephen Harper's worst enemy," he vowed.
But all it took was a phone call from a Conservative agent, the offer of a top cabinet job and Emerson jumped into bed with the angry, heartless Harper. So much for keeping promises, or principles.
After almost two years of saying there were clear and important differences between the parties, Emerson now says that wasn't true. He was misleading anyone who listened.
Especially the people in Vancouver Kingsway. Two weeks ago they elected Emerson as a Liberal to represent them in Ottawa. New Democrat Ian Waddell came second, with the Conservative candidate a distant third.
Despite their overwhelming rejection of the Conservatives, the voters in that riding are being represented by one.
There is nothing wrong with people changing parties on matters of principle. If an MP is deeply disturbed by the direction his party has been heading, he has the freedom to cross the floor, or more honourably to sit as an independent.
But that's not what happened here. Faced with the gloomy prospects of life on the opposition benches after two years in cabinet, Emerson jumped to keep a cabinet job.
Emerson says he can do more for his constituents if he's on the winning side. "If I'm going to dedicate another two years to public service, how can I have the most impact," he asks. "I think I can be more effective in helping them in cabinet than in opposition."
Practically, this is probably good news for B.C. Emerson is in a position to get action on B.C.'s priorities, from the Pacific Gateway project to pine beetle aid, an as international trade minister takes on the softwood file. He's also responsible for the Olympics, so expect a quick yes to the organizers' request for an extra $55 million to cover early cost over-runs.
But it's very bad news for democracy. Emerson and Harper have subverted the electoral process for their personal goals. The voters - the people who are supposed to be at the centre of all this - have been treated with contempt.
It's also a bad stumble for Harper on his first day. Instead of setting a new tone and new direction, he's looking much like the Liberals, welcoming Emerson just as eagerly as Paul Martin embraced Belinda Stronach when she abandoned the Conservatives.
At the same time Harper named Conservative campaign co-chair Michel Fortier to cabinet, even though Fortier didn't run in the election. He'll be appointed to the Senate, Harper said, and then run in the next election.
A Senate appointment and a seat at the cabinet table for a key party organizer, even though voters had been given no chance to judge his abilities.
And a big prize for an MP ready to denounce the principles he championed only weeks ago, and abandon both his party and the voters of his riding.
It was a dubious start for a government that had promised to do things differently.
Footnote: B.C. got three other seats at the cabinet table. Stockwell Day gets public safety, Chuck Strahl agriculture and Gary Lunn is the new minister for natural resources. The 27-member cabinet is down 12 people from Martin's version; B.C. should have the representation to advance the province's interests.