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Elly Stornebrink was among about 100 people at Tuesday’s rally. About 15,000 service workers are in a strike position.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Community social service workers across B.C. are now in a legal strike position, kicking off job action with a rally outside B.C. Premier Christy Clark's Kitsilano constituency office.

More than 100 people participated in the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union rally on Tuesday, including supporters such as B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair and B.C. Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert. It started at 10 a.m. and lasted for three hours.

In all, 15,000 unionized social service workers from the union – who provide support for vulnerable populations such as at-risk youth, first nations, people with disabilities and immigrants – are in a position to strike.

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They say the B.C. Liberal government has turned its back on the sector, stretching resources to the breaking point. The union accuses the provincial government of slashing $300-million in funding from programs since 2004.

Having gone 31/2 years without a raise, the union is asking for a cost-of-living increase along with a modest, but unspecified, wage increase in its new collective agreement.

The workers have been without a contract since the end of March. Bargaining began in January and broke off in June.

"The employer has not made an offer at the table, the reason being they are constrained by the government's mandate of co-operative gains," union spokesman Oliver Rohlfs said. "They haven't made an offer because they know it won't meet what's needed."

A 1-per-cent wage increase for the entire sector would cost the government $4.5-million, Mr. Rohlfs said.

Patsy Harmston, chair of the community social services bargaining committee and a transition house worker, said the cuts have been noticeable in her line of work.

"You feel very helpless a lot of the time because you just can't help them with the help that they need," she said of clients.

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Mr. Rohlfs said these are the workers who care for those who stumble upon hard times and deserve more respect than they are currently getting. The starting wage for a residential care worker today is $15.54, compared with $16.83 a decade ago, he cited.

"A lot of people say how you treat your most vulnerable people says a lot about society," he said. "Well, how you treat the workers who care for those vulnerable people says a lot as well."

Minister of Social Development Moira Stilwell was in transit and unavailable for an interview on Tuesday. However, she said in a statement that essential services levels are in place as the union continues strike action, which is "a part of the bargaining process."

"Generally, significant progress has been made under the co-operative gains mandate, despite the tough fiscal environment, and I am hopeful the parties will be able to reach an agreement soon," she said.

Tuesday's job action will be followed by similar job action in Kamloops on Wednesday and Prince George on Thursday.

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