By Andrew Mitchell
The B.C. Government and Service Employees Union received a strong mandate from its members last week, with 78 per cent casting ballots and 80 per cent of voters saying yes to a strike if their demands aren’t met.
The current contract for 25,000 provincial employees, which was imposed by the provincial government in 2003, expires on March 31. According to BCGEU president George Heyman, the picket lines could go up as early as April 1 if there is no resolution.
In Whistler the impact could be significant. There are 43 BCGEU employees in town, all working for three local liquor stores. Without a resolution a strike could shut down local liquor stores through the busy month of April, which features the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival.
The bargaining process started again on Tuesday, with BCGEU leaders setting a deadline of Sunday to reach an agreement. According to BCGEU spokesperson Carol Adams, the March 12 deadline was necessary to give the union and its members time to ratify an agreement before the March 31 deadline.
Not only is that the day the union’s contract is up, it’s also the final day for union members to receive a share of a one-time “bonus” offered by the province of $1 billion. That money was set aside by the province to reward unions and union members for signing new contracts before previous contracts expired. For the BCGEU the bonus works out to approximately $3,300 per employee.
If the province and the BCGEU cannot reach an agreement by Sunday the negotiations will continue, says Adams, but it will make the prospect of a strike more likely by taking the bonus out of the equation.
“We have 25,000 members in a large range of occupations around the province,” said Adams. “There are corrections officers and sheriffs in correctional facilities. There are health care workers who are in provincial mental institutions such as Riverside. There are employment and assistance workers who administer programs like Welfare. There are liquor store employees across the province.
“Our members provide a vast array of community services, like avalanche stations, forest fire watch stations and fire fighters, they inspect highways and bridges to ensure they’re safe to drive, they manage forests and environmental protection.
“Anyone who works directly for the provincial government is affected, in every single community of the province.”
After having their wages frozen for the past two years, the union is looking for a 10 per cent pay raise for members over the next three years — similar to the deal that the government of Alberta made with its employees earlier this year.
The government’s counter offer is six per cent over four years, in addition to the bonus.
But more important than wages is the issue of job security and outside contracting. The union is asking the government to guarantee employment for union members, and to abandon plans to contract out government departments and positions to the private sector. According to the BCGEU, the union has already shrunk by about 7,000 members due to downsizing and privatization of services.
The government wants to retain the right to contract out and privatize some government services. The government has already privatized billing and administration of B.C. Hydro and the Medical Services Plan, and according to the BCGEU is looking to contract out positions at the B.C. Film Classification office, the Oil and Gas Commission and B.C. Pension Corporation.