Labour landmines remain

Vancouver Sun

By Vaughan Palmer

The B.C. Liberals are celebrating the success to date of their "net zero mandate" for contract negotiation as a growing number of public sector unions are settling for two-year deals at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

The hold-the-line mandate looked suspect when it was announced last September. The Liberals were drawing the line when they were already sliding downward in the polls, thanks to the post-election shocker of the harmonized sales tax.

A weakened government, offering nothing at the bargaining table. Perhaps the unions would wait for the Olympic hoopla to pass, then take on the Liberals.

It hasn't worked out that way. As of Wednesday, the government was at the halfway mark in securing contracts and tentative settlements with unions representing more than half of the 200,000 public sector workers whose contracts expire this year.

In acknowledging the progress this week, Finance Minister Colin Hansen said that with slumping revenues, spending cuts and layoffs, this was not the time to saddle the provincial treasury with increased costs for wages and benefits.

"I think the unions are recognizing that," he told reporters. "There's been a lot of realism at the bargaining table by all sides."

Realism was surely a factor in the latest tentative settlement, announced with the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, representing most of the unionized civil servants working for government and its ministries.

The 29,000 BCGEU members will vote whether to accept the contract later this month. But the bargaining committee recommends acceptance because of added protection at a time when the Liberals are moving to eliminate 3,500 full-time positions over three years.

"Employment security from our perspective is absolutely the big piece for this one," union president Darryl Walker told the Victoria Times Colonist. Members whose jobs are phased out in one part of government will be offered another position -- "in like occupations and like jobs" -- in another part of government.

As well as bringing a realistic perspective to the table, the unions also displayed a measure of creativity in finding ways to make trade-offs under the "net zero" mandate.

That approach was most evident in the key set of talks involving almost 50,000 skilled and semi-skilled workers in the major health care facilities. Pressure points included contracting out, jobs being shifted to a new shared services agency and the difficulty of finding qualified employees for some key classifications.

The latter posed a special challenge for the lead union in the negotiations, the Hospital Employees' Union. The HEU had recently been targeted for a raid by the rival B.C. Nurses' Union, which was trying to lure away several thousand members who were licensed practical nurses.

A key element of the pitch was the pay increase of six per cent over two years negotiated by the nurses' union on the eve of the last provincial election. Climb aboard and you'll get the same, the LPNs were encouraged to believe.

The HEU had so far managed to stall the raid. But unless it could show progress on behalf of its nurses at the bargaining table, there was every expectation that the BCNU raiders would be back.

"It was a very, very tough round of bargaining," said HEU business manager Judy Darcy, who led the talks on behalf of her members as well as 10 other unions at the health care facilities. "Tight not just on money, but on non-monetary issues."

But she crossed the finish line making enough progress on each of her priorities. The most notable provision was pay increases -- billed as "market adjustments" -- for the classifications with recruitment pressures, including the HEU nurses who'll see increases of "three to seven per cent" over the two years.

Those targeted pay increases were paid for with concessions elsewhere in the contract, most notably a reduction in vacation time for all members. Not easy for workers to give up their own benefits to help fund wage increases for others.

But HEU members voted 77 per cent in favour of the deal in a vote staged in early March. There was also an earlier deal on behalf of almost 20,000 unionized workers at smaller, community health facilities.

Potential trouble spots remain. Talks in the community social services sector are hung up on pensions, among other issues. Ambulance paramedics, still seething over their imposed settlement last year, will be doubly incensed over the latest move, announced Wednesday, to roll them into a common bargaining unit with other health care unions.

The Health Sciences Association is looking for raises on par with nurses for its higher-skilled workers. But it has been harder to find trade-offs.

Still, with the HEU settled and the BCGEU preparing to do so, the biggest contracts are out of the way.

Already observers who anticipated trouble this time are looking ahead to 2011 when the teachers' contract expires, and to 2012 when these latest two-year deals come up for renewal just one year before the next provincial election.