September 17, 2012

BC public employees demand "Fair deal now!"

People's Voice Vancouver Bureau

     The sands of time appear to be running out for British Columbia's Liberal government, but that hasn't stopped Premier Christy Clark from picking a fight with public sector workers. Over 25,000 members of three unions held a one-day walkout on Sept. 5, closing liquor stores and many government offices in 153 communities.

     The one-day action did not include child protection workers, correctional officers and forest firefighters. Hospital, ferry and school workers were also not on strike.

     But further action is expected as the BC Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU), Canadian Office and Professional Employees Local 378 (Insurance Corporation of BC employees), and the Professional Employees Association (representing over 1,200 licensed professionals) press for a new collective agreement after two years of frozen pay rates.

     For months, the Liberals have been 20% or more behind Adrian Dix's NDP in the polls, and nearly half of Clark's caucus say they will not run in the May 2013 provincial election. In fact, the B.C. Conservatives are challenging the Liberals for second place. Barring the unexpected, next spring could see an electoral tsunami sweep the Liberals out into the Pacific.

     A survey conducted in late August for the B.C. Federation of Labour showed that a majority of B.C. residents agreed with the statement that public sector workers should at least get a cost of living increase without having to take cuts elsewhere in their collective agreement (38 per cent strongly agree, 36 per cent somewhat agree).

     Almost as many backed the public sector workers job action if the government refuses to offer at least a cost of living wage increase (28 per cent strongly agreed, and 33 per cent somewhat agreed).

     In another significant finding, most British Columbians support an increase in corporate taxes (79%) and a surtax on high‑income earners (80%). This overwhelming sentiment could help pressure an incoming NDP government to reverse the Campbell Liberal tax cuts which mainly benefitted the wealthy and the corporations, and to use the resulting revenues to raise public sector salaries and improve social programs.

     In a media commentary issued for the Sept. 5 one-day walkout, the leaders of the three unions said, "For the first time in more than 20 years, the entire government of B.C. is behind picket lines today in support of a fair and reasonable collective agreement...

     "We have not taken the decision to strike lightly - striking is our only recourse to a fair deal. B.C. has the leanest public service in Canada on a per‑capita basis. In 2010, with the world economy in the doldrums, B.C. government workers did their part and took two years with no wage increases. Their last increase was three and a half years ago, which amounts to a five‑per‑cent wage cut after you take inflation into account. COPE 378 members have been without a contract for over two years, with wages stagnant since 2009.

     "BCGEU and PEA members can't keep falling behind the higher cost of living. BCGEU public‑sector workers are asking for a wage increase of 3.5 per cent in Year 1 and a cost‑of‑living allowance in Year 2. The PEA is also seeking inflation‑based increases, which is reasonable. Non‑union workers across Canada can expect average wage increases of 3.2 per cent next year, according to global consulting firm Mercer.

     "By contrast, Victoria's final offer to the PEA and BCGEU amounted to 3.5 per cent over two years, amounting to a further wage cut after inflation. ICBC offered COPE 378 less - a four‑year contract with one‑per‑cent increases in the last two years.

Government workers cannot subsidize the operation of the B.C. government through continued wage cuts. A looming shortage of professionals is forecast in the next couple of years and real wage cuts only exacerbate the problem. Maintaining a strong professional workforce after years of job cuts is a priority for the PEA.

     "Three‑quarters of British Columbians don't want the men and women - and 60 per cent of the public service are women - on the front lines of public service falling further behind, according to a recent Environics survey. Seventy‑four per cent said public sector workers should at least get a cost of living increase without having to take cuts elsewhere. A majority also supports our one‑day strike.

     "We do not want to increase your taxes. Instead, the BCGEU made several proposals that would generate additional revenue for the government.

     "Of 197 public liquor stores, 175 are closed on Sundays. Opening them seven days a week would generate up to $100 million annually...

     "Assigning additional duties to the B.C. Sheriff Services would save money and generate revenue. In Alberta, sheriffs handle traffic duties alongside the RCMP. The successful program was doubled in size in the first year, and spawned $111 million in new government revenue in 2009‑10, half of which was returned to general revenue. Expanded sheriff duties would also reduce health care costs by improving road safety, alleviating delays in courts and freeing up police to focus on the Criminal Code.

     "COPE Local 378 has suggested savings ICBC will gain by implementing new technologies and work processes should be returned to its workers as improvements to wages and benefits.

     "The time for a fair deal for public sector workers is now."

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