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Six-year-old Kennedy Nelson-Dunning, from left, seven-year-old Jakoda Sam and six-year-old Megan MacDonald a kindergarten and Grade 1 class at Mission Central Elementary School in Mission, B.C., on Thursday December 16, 2010. (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)
Six-year-old Kennedy Nelson-Dunning, from left, seven-year-old Jakoda Sam and six-year-old Megan MacDonald a kindergarten and Grade 1 class at Mission Central Elementary School in Mission, B.C., on Thursday December 16, 2010. (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)

Tough months ahead for B.C.'s wage policy Add to ...

As a teachers labour dispute drags on, talks affecting thousands of other government employees are about to get under way – with unions’ demands for pay raises set for a head-on collision with the provincial government’s “net-zero” mandate.

B.C. Government Employees Union members identified wage increases – along with improved benefits and job security – as bargaining priorities at a December conference, BCGEU spokeswoman Karen Tankard said on Wednesday.

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“These are the priorities we are taking to the bargaining table,” Ms. Tankard said, adding that proposals for the 25,000 employees represented in the BCGEU’s master agreement will be put to government negotiators next week.

But while the government is open to proposals that would provide for pay increases through cost savings in other areas, such as greater productivity, it won’t put up any more money to meet wage demands, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said.

“I’m going to be extremely tough about the fact that there is no additional money, new money, for compensation increases for the public service,” Mr. Falcon said.

The province in October said it would take a “co-operative gains” approach to collective bargaining after two years of a net-zero mandate. The co-operative gains approach provides for wage increases as long as the overall amount of money does not increase.

Along with the BCGEU master agreement – which covers personnel such as social workers, liquor store employees and sheriffs and expires in March – dozens of other contracts expire in 2012. In total, the BCGEU represents about 65,000 workers, of whom 85 per cent will be represented at the bargaining table this year.

The union has signalled its readiness for battle, touting a $37-million-plus strike fund and its determination to consider a walkout. BCGEU president Darryl Walker has promised “no more zeroes” in new contracts.

Mr. Falcon, however, said even workers coming off of two years of a wage freeze shouldn’t expect an automatic increase.

“I think they should take a very hard look at what’s happening around the world,” Mr. Falcon said, citing layoffs of public-sector workers in California and economic problems elsewhere.

“When you look around the world and see what happens to governments that are not financially disciplined and don’t have their financial houses in order – I would argue that that puts public-sector workers in a worse position, when governments aren’t demonstrating that they’re fiscally responsible.”

The B.C. government has committed to balance its budget by 2013, although Mr. Falcon says that goal might have to be readjusted in light of economic factors.

On the teachers front, the two sides resumed talks this week, but remain far from reaching an agreement.

“We will be examining our mandate over the next few days and will be making moves that we hope will spark the onset of true bargaining,” British Columbia Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert said on Wednesday. “I hope government is doing the same”

The BCTF has rejected the government’s net-zero mandate, saying education in the province has been starved of funds for more than a decade.

“We’re still far apart,” said Melanie Joy, chairwoman of the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association. “The BCTF has indicated at the table that they are not going to move on the net-zero mandate and that continues to be the block.”

Asked if BCPSEA could ask the province for money to break the logjam, Ms. Joy said that would open the door to demands by other public-sector unions – including school support staff – that have signed contracts under the net-zero regime for their deals to be renegotiated.

Follow on Twitter: @wendy_stueck

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