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Members of the British Columbia General Employees' Union picket outside a B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch facility, in Delta, B.C., on Aug. 15.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s largest public-sector union reached a tentative agreement with the provincial government on Wednesday that includes a double-digit wage hike at a time when the cost of living is high.

The tentative agreement, reached after about seven months of negotiations between the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) and the government’s Public Service Agency (PSA), offers general wage increases of between 10.74 and 12.99 per cent over three years, from April 1, 2022, to March 31, 2025.

The hikes in the second and third years will be linked to the inflation rate, although the increases will not be lower than 5.5 per cent in the second year and 2 per cent in the third. As well, the deal offers a one-time economic subsidy payment equivalent to $4 per hour for a 16-week period for 20 job classifications, ranging from store clerks to machine operators.

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It is the most generous settlement in decades, and will be noted by other public sector unions across the country that are in negotiations.

“The members of this bargaining unit have been clear from the day we started preparing for bargaining last fall that their top priorities were wage increases and meaningful wage protections, and our committee took that message to the PSA,” Stephanie Smith, president of the BCGEU and chair of the bargaining committee, said in a statement.

The union represents about 30,000 people working in the B.C. public service, including social workers, administration staff, firefighters and employees at liquor and cannabis stores.

The deal follows a two-week strike in August that left many shelves bare at liquor and cannabis stores across B.C.

Premier John Horgan and Finance Minister Selina Robinson said it’s a fair deal.

“What I can say is that this is a reasonable and fair deal for employees now, as well as for three years from now,” Ms. Robinson told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. “And the deal needs to balance the needs of all of the public sector workers … with our fiscal responsibilities for the province and the people of British Columbia.”

Nearly 500,000 people work across the provincial public sector. About 393,000 of those are unionized employees paid under collective agreements or professionals paid through negotiated compensation agreements, according to a document released by the province’s Public Sector Employers’ Council last year.

It states the government and provincial public sector employers spend nearly $38.6-billion on compensation, or equivalent to more than half of the province’s budget, and an increase of 1 per cent in total compensation for all B.C. public sector employees is estimated to cost $386-million.

Opposition BC Liberal finance critic Peter Milobar questioned what the final cost of the deal will be.

“That really is the key. … What changes to the benefit plan have been made? And what is that going to cost taxpayers?” he said in an interview.

Christopher McLeod, an associate professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, said the wage hike could be up to nearly 14 per cent over the three years if other provisions of the contract are included.

“It is a very generous settlement, but it is in the context of inflation that we haven’t seen since the early 1980s,” he said, noting it’s a good deal for the workers.

He said the agreement will have a bit of an inflationary pressure on the economy, but the B.C. government has the fiscal capacity to withstand that because it has recently reported a $1.3-billion surplus.

This year, 184 public sector contracts are up for renewal in British Columbia.

Prof. McLeod said BCGEU’s agreement will “most definitely” set a standard for other unions in the public sector, but other factors may drive private-sector negotiations.

BCGEU said timelines for the ratification vote will be confirmed in the coming days.

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