One of B.C.’s largest public service unions is warning of possible job action after contract negotiations broke down with the provincial government.
The BC General Employees Union, which represents 33,000 public service workers in the negotiations, says negotiations with the government stalled after the union proposed a cost of living adjustment and wage protection from inflation. Members of the union include wildfire fighters, BC Liquor and Cannabis Store workers, sheriffs and correctional officers, conservation officers and more.
“To say we are disappointed is an understatement: despite our best efforts to bridge the gap, government has refused to table a proposal that meets our members’ key demand of cost-of-living protection,” said Stephanie Smith, BCGEU president and chair of the Public Service Bargaining Committee. “Our members have told us since the beginning of this round of bargaining that they would not ratify a deal which did not address the increasing cost of living.”
The union proposed wage increases of five per cent, or a cost of living adjustment tied to inflation, whichever was greater. Inflation rose to 6.8 per cent in June.
Another sticking point in negotiations is enhanced occupational health and safety. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the union is pushing for enhanced physical health and safety measures, as well as psychological health and safety.
“We learned a lot about how employers will do the bare minimum of what is asked of them. Throughout the pandemic what we were saying to employers is go above and beyond,” Smith said.
Smith declined to delve into specific measures proposed, but said the union is pushing for mental illness to be treated the same as physical illnesses.
Nearly 95 per cent of BCGEU members voted in favour of strike action before the latest round of negotiations began. Smith said that the union hopes to avoid job action, but will engage in “targetted” action if necessary. Any strike action would require a 72-hour notice before coming into effect.
“Job action can take a lot of different forms. We want to maximize impact to our employer and minimize impact to the people of B.C. and our own members,” Smith said. “It could be something like an overtime ban — we know that lots of ministries run on overtime because of labour shortages.”
Another tactic could be work to rule, where union members will only do “exactly what’s in their job description” and nothing above and beyond that.
In a statement to Black Press Media, the government said it respects the members of B.C.’s public sector and it believes an agreement will be reached through the collective bargaining process.
“Bargaining is a dynamic process and we all recognize that this round includes even more than the usual challenges. We believe that the parties are committed to reaching negotiated settlements that work for everyone at the table.”
The BCGEU is one of the first public sector unions to begin bargaining with the provincial government in 2022. Nearly 400,000 public sector workers have agreements that will expire this year.