Early rumblings of labour strife as public sector contract talks hit impasse
Talks between unionized members of British Columbia’s public service and their employer have hit an impasse, in what could be a sign of labour troubles to come.
The BC General Employees Union (BCGEU) said Thursday that negotiations on behalf of 33,000 workers had broken down with the province’s wage offer amounting to a wage cut under rapidly rising inflation.
“We’ve been falling behind for over a year now because of the rates of inflation, and we were upfront from the beginning that our members are looking for a cost of living adjustments, inflation protections,” BCGEU president Stephanie Smith told CKNW’s The Jas Johal Show.
The contract covering the B.C. public service expired on March 31, but negotiations have been underway for weeks.
Smith said the Public Service Agency’s first offer in mid-March was “far, far below” what the union was seeking, and that what the employer returned with this week wasn’t much better.
The union is seeking a two-year deal with a five per cent wage bump to offset inflation. The province, according to the union, is offering a three-year deal with a 1.75 per cent bump and a 25 cent per hour raise in the first year, followed by two per cent in each of the following years.
The employer is also offering a $1,000 signing bonus, according to Smith.
The province does not comment on details of contract negotiations.
The difference between the two positions represents approximately $2 billion.
“We’re seeing cost of living go up and up and up and up and as I said, we’ve been losing wages since February last year when inflation rates went above two percent, and so we needed to show our members they know their worth,” Smith said.
The signing bonus, she added, would be taxable, would not be pensionable, “and for most of our membership, it wouldn’t pay for one month’s rent or mortgage payment.”
Talks with the BCGEU are just one piece of a difficult puzzle facing the provincial government.
2022 is shaping up to be a marathon year of labour negotiations, with more than 180 contracts covering about 393,000 public sector workers up for renewal.
Among them is the B.C. Hospital Employees Union, which released its own statement Thursday slamming the province’s latest offer, which it said mirrored the package offered to the BCGEU.
Like the BCGEU, the HEU said members were struggling to keep up with the cost of living, and that many health-care workers were thinking of giving up the profession.
As the first of many contracts up for renegotiation, talks between the two unions and the province are particularly crucial, with the potential to set a precedent for bargaining in other sectors.
And Smith would not rule out the possibility of labour disruptions if the impasse was not resolved. She said talks were already underway about essential service designations should the union move on to job action.
Smith said the union is also in the process of engaging its members, but that it likely wouldn’t be in a position to take a strike vote until early May.
“What happens next is really up to the employer,” she said.
“We are ready to come back to the table the minute they pick up the phone and want to put an offer in front of us that that we feel our members would consider.”
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