January 11, 2012 at 9:34 AM
Unions, government face challenging negotiations under new mandate
By Jonathan Fowlie, Vancouver Sun January 10, 2012
The B.C. government kicked off the first round of talks Tuesday in what promises to be a long and challenging year of contract negotiations with the province’s public sector unions.
Contracts for the majority of the province’s 307,000 unionized workers all expire this year — a legacy from the Olympic Games, when government sought to ensure labour peace by moving most contracts to the same timeline.
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon has firmly declared there is no money in the budget for public sector wage increases, saying even a one-per-cent increase in wages for all employees would cost about $200 million per year.
But almost all public sector workers are coming off a two-year wage freeze they accepted in 2010 under the government’s so-called net zero mandate.
“They did their part, they took the two zeros over the last two years,” said B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union president Darryl Walker, whose union began talks with the government on Tuesday.
“It’s now time for an increase.”
To address this issue, the B.C. Liberals have introduced the so-called cooperative gains mandate, where the government will allow wage increases, but only if funded from savings found within the system.
“We are prepared to really be creative and constructive on working with the public sector unions to identify how we can, through what we call gain sharing, generate opportunities to reduce costs within our current fiscal envelope and increase productivity,” Falcon said Tuesday.
“It will be tough negotiations, but I think if the spirit is willing we can do it.”
Under the new mandate, the government wants to sign contracts that are at least two years long, meaning they will not expire until after the election in 2013.
The government has also said it will allow contracts to go longer than two years if any union wants.
Gains found under the new mandate cannot be funded through a reduction of services to the public, or through an increase in costs, such as a tuition increase or additional user fees.
Because savings will vary from sector to sector, some unions may be able to negotiate larger wage increases. As a result, it may become harder to reach agreements as the process progresses and members are presented with deals that are potentially less lucrative than what other unions had already negotiated.
In part to address this, government has set a confidential framework for negotiations that limits the amount of savings that can be used to increase wages.
Given the likely disparities between negotiating tables, and Falcon’s expectation that any wage increases will be “modest,” negotiations are likely to become a thorn in the side of Premier Christy Clark.
Clark is preparing for a May 2013 election against the labour-friendly New Democratic Party, and is already fighting to find enough savings across government to introduce a balanced budget by the time voters go to the polls.
Government officials began negotiations with the BCGEU on Tuesday, and expect to open with the health sector next week.
They hope to have at least one significant agreement concluded by the end of March, when the bulk of the existing contracts expire.
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