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Thousands of government workers hit the picket line

Sep 06 2012
BCGEU president Darryl Walker on the picket line in Victoria. 

BCGEU president Darryl Walker on the picket line in Victoria.

Photograph by: Adrian Lam , Times Colonist

Picket lines with bright yellow signs were up all over Greater Victoria and nearly 1,800 worksites across the province as the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union staged a one-day strike Wednesday.

The union has mounted three previous one-day strikes this year, but Wednesday’s was the largest. It involved about 25,000 BCGEU members and about 2,000 from two other government unions.

The BCGEU said it was a ramped-up attempt to get the provincial government back to the bargaining table after the province, on July 3, rescinded its wage increase offer of 3.5 per cent over two years.

Union president Darryl Walker saw reason for optimism after acting finance minister Shirley Bond said on a radio show Wednesday that she would like to resume negotiating.

“There’s probably a collective agreement just around the corner,” Walker said. The union plans to contact the province today.

Bond maintained on CKNW that it was the union that walked away from the table.

She called 3.5 per cent over two years a fair offer.

The government rescinded its offer after some union members walked off the job.

Bond said she hopes the strike has kickstarted the union’s desire to resume negotiations. “We’re willing to talk.”

“Let’s have this discussion and let’s try to find a way to give your members a reasonable and modest wage increase,” said Bond. Most B.C. residents would not find $1,700 over two years on an average wage of $48,000 “an insignificant amount.”

Standing with some of 700 striking workers outside Ministry of Health offices at Blanshard Street and Pandora Avenue, union chief negotiator David Vipond said: “We cannot settle if they don’t make an offer.”

Members want 3.5 per cent for the first year and a cost of living increase of about two per cent for the second. The increase, costing $66 million annually, could be more than covered if the government would approve Sunday opening of all provincial liquor stores, longer hours on weekdays and a few more stores, union leaders say.

Vipond called the  stalemate a part of “peekaboo bargaining,” saying the province took its offer off the table three times when the union didn’t bite within a week.

Wage rates range from about $16 hourly for a labourer up to $75,000 annually for the highest paid BCGEU members such as senior economists. Most of the staff at the Health Ministry earn between $30,000 and $40,000 per year, said union zone captain Ron Jetko.

The union’s last raise was two per cent in April 2009, followed by a two-year wage freeze, which Vipond said the province wanted to extend for another three months. “Since the contract expired on April 1, 2010, we’ve lost about 5.5 per cent of our income to inflation.”

The closing of government liquor stores was the most publicly visible part of the walkout.

B.C. Mail workers, who deliver internal government mail, were also on strike, but issuing of social assistance payments was not affected.

In talking to union members at 50 or 60  sites, Walker said heard of no problems.

About a third of the union’s membership was at work because of health, safety and public welfare concerns.

ICBC insurance and licensing offices were open because of a B.C. Labour Board ruling.

“Our dispute is not with the people of  B.C. — it’s a pay claim with the government,” Vipond said.

About 25,000 BCGEU members were on strike, joined by about 2,000 from the Professional Employees Association and the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union.

If the province doesn’t come back to the table, the union will have to consider “more enduring” means, Vipond said, without providing specifics.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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