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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. Workers waged strikes at three British Columbia government Liquor Distribution Branch facilities in Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops after new contract negotiations between the union and the provincial government hit a stalemate.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

The provincial government may have a tough time painting striking members of the B.C. Government and Employees' Service Union as inflexible bad guys in their current bargaining stalemate.

As the union launched its first public-sector strike in years on Tuesday – albeit in a small way – BCGEU president Darryl Walker did a good job of oozing reasonableness, with nary a hint of militancy.

The union's last wage demand is flexible, Mr. Walker said right off the bat, in an interview. When asked whether the province is in for a long, hot summer of picket lines, he stuck strictly to the weather: "I hope it is a long, hot summer, but so far, the rain isn't giving that kind of indication."

And he even had kind words to say about Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, who has told the union there is no more government money in the pot, despite its strike plans.

"Sure, he's made a tough statement, but I don't think that's unfair. It's all part of the negotiating process. His job is finance minister of British Columbia, and I respect that," Mr. Walker said. "I have no problems whatsoever with the minister. I think he's fair and honest."

As if to underscore Mr. Walker's concliatory attitude, the union's 24-hour walkout at three liquor distribution branches was a far cry from the all-out withdrawal of services that have marked previous strikes by the BCGEU's main provincewide bargaining unit.

Of course, the last time the union put up picket pickets was so far in the past that Mr. Walker couldn't couldn't quite remember how many years ago it was.

"It's been 22 years," said Mr. Walker, a longtime health-care worker at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam before taking over the union presidency in 2008. "No, wait. The last one was in 1988, under [former Premier Bill] Vander Zalm. Let's call it 24 years. My mistake."

Since then, the province's public servants have accepted contract after contract, without a whiff of job action. That includes the union's most recent master agreement in 2010 which imposed a two-year wage freeze.

"We're pragmatic. We realize we can't have the moon and the stars," Mr. Walker said. "Two years ago, we took zeros to help rebuild the economy, Now, we're saying it's time to get a little of that back."

Despite the union's job action Tuesday, the parties do not seem that far apart.

The government has offered a total wage increase of 3.5 per cent over two years. The last union demand called for a 3.5-per-cent pay hike in the first year, and a cost of living adjustment in the second year.

A little movement on both sides would likely produce an agreement. And the union is willing to do its part, Mr. Walker said.

"Listen, bargaining is bargaining. You have to be flexible. If we're going to be absolutely stringent, then we're not going to get an agreement."

There is no sign of give on the government side of the table, however. Mr. Falcon was not available for comment on Tuesday, but the Finance Department released a hardline statement from the minister.

Calling the government's wage offer "fair and reasonable," Mr. Falcon said the province will not add to its deficit or raise taxes to provide "unaffordable wage increases" in a time of economic uncertainty.

Each 1-per-cent increase in compensation, if applied to all unionized public sector employees, would cost the treasury about $197-million.

Mr. Falcon reiterated that the government will pull its proposed pay package off the table if the BCGEU goes out on strike. He did not clarify whether Tuesday's brief walkout at liquor distribution branches in Vancouver, Prince George and Kamloops qualified as "strike action."

Mr. Walker said the union has opted against the all-out, public-service strikes of the past, when everyone from liquor-store workers to inland ferry-service employees to non-essential employees at provincial health insitutions were off the job, while government offices were closed across the province.

The union's goal is to inform the public through moderate job action, the BCGEU leader said.

"There are a number of possible ways to up the ante, but at this point, we want to give the public general information about our frustrations, and let the government know, too," Mr. Walker explained. "If we all simply went out, that wouldn't speak to what our needs are."

The next step for the 25,000-strong government work force is still to be decided, he added.

It appears that the BCGEU intends to keep its thoughts on a long, hot summer to the weather for some time yet.

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