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B.C. government union sticks to slow, steady job action

Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, says the union’s goal is to win a ‘fair, decent and reasonable’ collective agreement.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The province's 25,000 government employees have adopted the strategy of the tortoise against the hare in their drive for a new contract: Slow and steady wins the race.

And if some want to call him a wimp for that, so be it, president Darryl Walker declared Tuesday as his union staged another one-day strike by a sprinkling of employees in scattered locations around British Columbia.

The goal is to win a "fair, decent and reasonable" collective agreement, while continuing to provide government services to the public, he said, defending the union's ultra-modest job action to date. "If that's being a wimp, then you can call me that. Frankly, I believe it's leadership."

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A total of 180 government workers were off the job during the day at various ministries in Surrey, Kelowna, Campbell River and 100 Mile House.

They were joined on the picket line by licensed professionals, the first strike action by members of the Professional Employees Association in its 38-year history.

Last month, B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union members walked out for 24 hours at Liquor Distribution Branch locations in Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops.

There are no immediate plans for further job action by the union, and an all-out walkout is not being considered at this point, Mr. Walker said. The union's goal is to try to win public support for its contract demands, and that means applying only incremental pressure on the government for the time being, he explained.

The plan is a long way from the high-stakes union showdowns of B.C.'s turbulent labour past, said industrial relations expert Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at the University of Britsh Columbia's Sauder School of Business. "I don't see that the union is doing very much. … Certainly, no one can claim they're lusting for combat."

But the BCGEU's tactics may be the right way to go in the changed labour environment, with unions more domesticated and governments more willing to take action against them, Prof. Thompson said.

He said there is likely little appetite for a polarized showdown with the B.C. government, which could see the union legislated back to work with the ringing credo: "Who's running the province: us or the BCGEU?"

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In the meantime, sporadic job action keeps the issue before the public in a way that is not aggravating, Prof. Thompson said. "It shows they're not being unreasonable. It's summertime. They're taking action more in sorrow than in anger kind of thing. But in the end, someone is going to have to blink."

He said that could be the government, given that the parties aren't very far apart.

"They may decide six months before [next May's] election to be nice to their valued employees," Prof. Thompson said. "The union is not asking for the moon, and I think at some point, the government will want to get this dispute off the table."

Although the proposal has now been withdrawn, the government had offered its employees a two-year contract providing a non-retroactive wage increase of 2 per cent in the first year, and a 1.5-per-cent pay hike in the second year.

The BCGEU is seeking a one-year wage increase of 3.5 per cent, followed by a cost-of-living adjustment.

Mr. Walker said union members have not had a raise in nearly 3 1/2 years. He believes there is public support for a pay boost to reflect cost-of-living increases over that time. "If we take the government's offer, our members are subsidizing the government by working for less than perhaps we ought to."

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In the meantime, the BCGEU president said the union will maintain its low-key tactics.

"Today's action is just one more step towards continuing pressure. Is it enough? Probably not. Will there be more? Yes, I think you could probably guess that we'll continue to put the pressure on as we go forward. … But the public has to know and understand that government services are still going to be there for them."

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