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The Globe and Mail

B.C. civil servants reject initial wage offer

The British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

The B.C. government's era of wage freezes has ended at the bargaining table with the union representing civil servants – but its initial offer to hike wages by 3 per cent over the next two years has been rejected.

The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, representing 25,000 government workers from liquor-store clerks to prison guards and social workers, broke off talks on Friday and plans to conduct a strike vote starting next week.

The government is already mired in conflicts with teachers and anesthesiologists, but the BCGEU talks were supposed to be different. It's a bellwether table that will set the tone for the rest of the public-sector union negotiations. This spring will see about 300,000 public-sector workers in contract talks.

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In contrast to the frequent conflicts with the B.C. Teachers' Federation, the BCGEU has not taken strike action in 24 years.

"We are not strike-happy," said David Vipond, a BCGEU director who has served on the union's bargaining team for decades. But he said the government's negotiators spurned proposals to save money – more than enough, by the union's math, to pay for wage increases of about 8 per cent over two years.

"Maybe they want a fight – and they might be successful," he said.

The master agreement contract, which covers 25,000 government workers, expires on Saturday, but the union would not be in a position to strike until May, as it expects the strike vote to take several weeks.

The government has opened the door to public-sector wage increases for the first time in three years – but only if savings or increased revenue can be found somewhere within the workplace. Wage increases cannot be funded through cuts to services or through higher fees.

The BCGEU proposed opening all government liquor stores on Sundays, and to use sheriffs for traffic duty. It said that would save $350-million, but the government countered that the business case for both ideas did not stand up.

However, the province did find savings to pay for wage increases of 1.5 per cent in each of the two years. Union president Darryl Walker said that, after three years without a wage increase, that is not enough. "It's now time we start to recover some of that," he said.

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Despite threatened job action by the civil service setting the tone for the broader public sector, the province won a key victory in the health sector on Friday. A B.C. Supreme Court justice has granted health authorities an injunction to prevent service cuts next week by B.C. anesthesiologists.

Members of the B.C. Anesthesiologists Society were prepared to stop participating in elective surgery to press their contract demands.

But Mr. Justice John Savage temporarily headed off the protest with his ruling on Friday afternoon. "In this case, the persons most harmed in this dispute are the persons waiting for surgeries," he told the court. The court will revisit the matter on April 18.

Health authorities lawyer Penny Washington said she was pleased. "I am confident [the doctors]will abide by the terms of the order," she told reporters outside the court after the hearing.

She said the service cuts would have had a "devastating impact" on patients and the health authorities.

Jeff Rains, head of the anesthesiologists society, said his group is seeking a seat at ongoing talks involving the government and B.C. Medical Association. If the society gets the seat, it will end the walkout threat, he said.

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Meanwhile, the long-running dispute between the province and some 41,000 teachers is simmering. The British Columbia Teachers' Federation is still seeking a contract under the old "net zero" mandate, from which it hopes to escape.

Teachers launched limited job action in September and held a three-day walkout this month. Bill 22, new education legislation passed on March 15, imposed a six-month cooling-off period and makes further strike activity illegal, at the risk of hefty fines.

The province rejected the BCTF's January proposal of a 15-per-cent wage increase over three years. A government-appointed mediator, Charles Jago, has until the end of June to come up with non-binding recommendations in the dispute.

With a report from Wendy Stueck in Vancouver

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