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Dual deals end months of labour rattling in B.C.

Striking B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union worker wave at passing vehicles at the liquor distribution branch on East Broadway in Vancouver July 3, 2012.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

To the surprise of many, a wave of labour peace has broken out in the province.

After months of talking tough to its public service employees as they ramped up job action, the government decided it would rather switch than fight.

Within a few days in late September, two major contracts that had been festering for months were put to bed, covering 26,000 members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union and more than 32,000 registered nurses in the province.

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The cost wasn't cheap for a government struggling with its bottom line. The BCGEU won a 4-per-cent wage increase over two years. The B.C. Nurses' Union accepted a two-year hike of 3 per cent, plus paycheques boosted by another 4.17 per cent, due to a longer work week.

Veteran political analyst Norman Ruff was among those taken aback by the sudden turnaround.

Only two weeks earlier, Finance Minister Mike de Jong had been warning that the government's previous offer to the BCGEU might actually have to be reduced, because of revenue concerns. Instead, the government offered more.

The Liberals also abandoned their long-held intention to privatize the Liquor Distribution Branch in order to secure their pact with the BCGEU.

"That was quite a U-turn," said Mr. Ruff, "and everything seemed to happen so quickly."

He said the surprise agreements abruptly squelched considerable speculation the Liberals might be trying out a hard-nosed approach to government employees as an issue in next spring's election.

"But no. In the end, I guess they decided they wanted next year's election to take place in calmer waters."

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The Liberals' low standing in public-opinion polls made confrontation a precarious election stand, Mr. Ruff added. "Right now, they're looking for friends, not enemies. Why stir the pot further by picking a fight with their own employees?"

The government slightly sweetened the compensation pot for the BCGEU, upping its offer from 3.5 to 4 per cent over two years. Labour2

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