The first province-wide walkout by B.C. public service employees in nearly a quarter of a century has merely hardened the government’s determination to hold the line on public-sector wages.
As two other unions joined 27,000 members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union for a one-day show of force on the picket line, Premier Christy Clark reiterated that there would be no budging by her side at the bargaining table.
“I’m not going back to taxpayers for more money in order to give government workers a raise. I am just simply not going to do it,” Ms. Clark declared on Wednesday, shortly after her freshly shuffled cabinet had been sworn in at Government House in Victoria.
The Premier’s tough talk upped the ante in what is shaping up as the first big confrontation between the provincial government and its unions in years.
Without a raise for three years, government employees believe they have contributed enough to the province’s austerity budgets. Now, they want at least to keep pace with inflation.
“The cost of living has gone up significantly, especially in a city like Vancouver,” mineral titles employee Ava Hick said as she played with her dog Pedro in the bright sunshine outside government offices on Hornby Street. “We work hard, and we deserve a fair wage.”
The three unions involved in Wednesday’s job action are hardly strike-happy.
The BCGEU has not taken job action since 1988. The Professional Employees Association, which had more than 1,200 members wearing picket signs, is striking for the first time in its 38-year history. And it has been 30 years since Insurance Corporation of British Columbia employees, represented by Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union, Local 378, went on strike. About 780 COPE members were off the job.
Local 378 president David Black said workers are outraged that ICBC executives have been pocketing exorbitant salaries while the crown corporation has offered ordinary employees nothing more than a 2 per cent increase over four years. “All we’re asking for is not to fall further behind inflation.”
In addition to a better wage deal, PEA executive director Scott McCannell said his members are concerned that the number of professionally certified public sector workers has fallen significantly over the past five years. “For our members, it’s reached a tipping point,” Mr. McCannell said.
Meanwhile, BCGEU president Darryl Walker warned of further job action if the government does not improve its most recent wage offer.
The government has offered a total pay hike of 3.5 per cent over two years. The union wants an increase of 3.5 per cent in the first year, followed by a cost-of-living adjustment for the second year.
“You have to keep stepping up your action just a little more each time around, or you lose the edge,” Mr. Walker said. “But I hope by next week, we’ll be negotiating a collective agreement. What we feel is fair is just the cost of living.”
Wednesday’s walkout, involving three separate unions, was a first for B.C.’s public sector.
Mike de Jong, the province’s new Finance Minister, said the government would like to pay its workers more “for the good work they do,” but taxpayer dollars are limited. “That’s where the tension lies.“
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria.