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Government’s switch puzzles union leaders

Sep 14 2012

The B.C. government’s decision to review its bargaining mandate while in the middle of contentious negotiations with tens of thousands of workers — many of whom have started strike action — has bewildered union officials.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong on Thursday announced a “review” of whether government could afford its co-operative gains bargaining mandate, as part of widespread cutbacks to government spending in the wake of slumping revenue. Co-operative gains meant the government would only allow wage increases for workers if savings could be found elsewhere in their contracts.

But with government now faced with having to cut hundreds of millions to balance its budget in 2013, de Jong said there may not be enough money.

“Were I not to point out the obvious, that in the midst of negotiations that these numbers have an impact on government’s ability to pay, you would be doing it for me,” he told reporters at a briefing where he outlined $1.4 billion in vanishing natural resource revenue. “This obviously impacts on the dollars available to government, and we’re going to need to look at that.”

B.C. Government & Service Employees’ Union representatives are puzzled by the government’s change of course, said president Darryl Walker.

Last month, then-finance minister Kevin Falcon touted “good news” coming from public accounts and suggested the government was on track for a surplus budget next year. “How could it have changed so drastically in one month’s time?” Walker asked.

A reduction in government spending will put added pressure on public services such as social workers and child protection, Walker said.

“We expect that any savings realized by the government’s hiring freeze and our overtime ban will go toward a better offer for our members, who’ve not had a raise in three and a half years,” he said.

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, called on the government “to roll up their sleeves and start doing their job, and their job is to make sure they get collective agreements, [ensure] services continue and they run the government.”

The government’s decision to review the co-operative gains bargaining mandate at this point has bad optics, said Ken Thornicroft, a professor of law and employment relations at the University of Victoria.

“From a legal point, [government negotiators] haven’t really done anything wrong as long as they can make an arguable case justifying why proposals made in the past aren’t going to be put forward in the future,” he said.

While government workers are upset at the prospect of a continuation of frozen wages, they should be aware that many public-sector workers have lost their jobs entirely and had wages and benefits slashed, Thornicroft said.

B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins said in a statement that the government is “desperate to pick an election-winning fight with public-sector unions.”

This is part of the Liberals’ plan to have a surplus budget in February, said Cummins, “and on election eve claim the result was due to their prowess as fiscal managers.”

rshaw@timescolonist.com

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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