You can understand the frustration of Whistlers 29 bylaw officers, sewage treatment plant and utilities workers, having gone more than two years without a contract, but frustration may not be the only reason the matter is escalating in the spring of 2005.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the 29 municipal workers in their demand that a $4,000 cost of living allowance be part of their new contract, has tried to put pressure on the municipality with appearances at recent council meetings. Mayor Hugh OReilly has responded that the municipality wont negotiate in public and he has not allowed the union to use the question and answer period at council meetings to raise contract issues. Both sides accuse the other of walking away from the bargaining table.
The stalemate hasnt affected municipal operations yet and so really hasnt captured much public attention to date. After all, whats the concern when basic operation of the sewage treatment plant has been declared an essential service, thus preventing those workers from striking, and job action by bylaw officers might only mean that no parking tickets are issued?
But Mondays rally prior to councils meeting may have signalled not only escalating frustrations but also hints of where this labour dispute could be going. CUPE President Barry ONeill gave the first clue with his comments: "Mr. Mayor I hope you can come to some resolve because this is really not a struggle of Local 2010 any longer. If you think in Whistler that you can take on the labour movement in this community then I wish you the best of luck (you're in) for the fight of your life my friend."
The suggestion that this might be the start of a much larger labour battle was reinforced by the presence of Jim Sinclair. "We will make sure at the end of the day that respect is won," Sinclair said. But the fact that the president of the 470,000-member B.C. Federation of Labour was in Whistler for a contract dispute involving 29 people was even more telling.
British Columbia has enjoyed relative labour peace the last few years, so perhaps even a dispute involving 29 employees is an opportunity for labour leaders to show they are still in fighting trim.
But just because there have been few high-profile battles doesnt mean organized labour is happy with the general state of things under the Liberal government in Victoria. Unions havent had many opportunities to voice their concerns, and under Carole James the unions influence in the NDP has been downplayed significantly. So the opportunity for labour to show its influence in B.C. is now, the period prior to the 2010 Olympics, and particularly during a provincial election.
Unions, knowing how important the 2010 Olympics are to the provincial government and how critical it is that Olympic venues be constructed on time, have been pushing the Liberals for a comprehensive labour agreement covering all Olympic construction projects, in return for a guarantee of no work interruptions. Such an agreement was in place for the Sydney Olympics, which are generally regarded as a huge success. No such agreement was in place in Athens, which had massive cost overruns. So far the Liberals have refused to consider any blanket labour agreement.
On Monday Sinclair pointed to the Olympics as something that would further drive up the cost of living in Whistler, and therefore strengthened the case for a $4,000 cost of living allowance. A case could be made that a two-week event five years down the road wont drive up the cost of living in Whistler, but the point is moot. Whats really going on here is a fight by organized labour for more influence, in Whistler and across B.C., and the 2010 Olympics are the key.
Unions have not played a large role in Whistler affairs in the past, but there are more unionized workers in Whistler now than ever before. Over the years a few more hotels have been certified and teachers who, more than most, felt the impact of the Liberals New Era measures may be sympathetic to CUPE Local 2010s plight, particularly if it can be done in a way that causes the Liberals some problems during the election.
Perhaps binding arbitration can resolve the whole CUPE contract issue and Whistler can move on from there. But if this dispute continues to drag on the stakes will continue to rise and the possibility of a much larger labour confrontation looms.