Editor's note: Union leaders Darryl Walker, Scott McCannell and David Black submitted this editorial in advance of the BCGEU strike on Wednesday (see story on Page 3).
For the first time in more than 20 years, the entire government of B.C. is behind picket lines today in support of a fair and reasonable collective agreement. More than 27,000 government and ICBC workers are on strike, from the B.C. Government and Service Employees'
Union (BCGEU), Professional Employees Association (PEA) and Canadian Office & Professional Employees Union (COPE) Local 378 members.
We are striking because we need a fair deal and Victoria is not listening. The one-day job action will impact a majority of the 1,785 government work sites in 153 B.C. communities. For one day only, public liquor stores are closed. ICBC offices that are located in government buildings and staffed by COPE 378 members are also shuttered. Agencies such as Service B.C. have minimal service levels, so registering your business or purchasing your angling licence may take longer than normal.
We encourage members of the public to conduct business another day if possible. Even if we are on strike, public service workers who are critical to the health and safety of the public remain on the job. BCGEU members who are child protection workers, correctional officers and forest firefighters are working today. Hospital, ferry and school workers are not on strike.
You should know that we have not taken the decision to strike lightly - striking is our only recourse to a fair deal. B.C. has the leanest public service in Canada on a per-capita basis. In 2010, with the world economy in the doldrums, B.C. government workers did their part and took two years with no wage increases. Their last increase was three and a half years ago, which amounts to a five-per-cent wage cut after you take inflation into account. COPE 378 members have been without a contract for over two years, with wages stagnant since 2009. BCGEU and PEA members can't keep falling behind the higher cost of living. BCGEU public-sector workers are asking for a wage increase of 3.5 per cent in Year 1 and a cost-of-living allowance in Year 2. The PEA is also seeking inflation-based increases, which is reasonable.
Non-union workers across Canada can expect average wage increases of 3.2 per cent next year, according to global consulting firm Mercer. By contrast, Victoria's final offer to the PEA and BCGEU amounted to 3.5 per cent over two years, amounting to a further wage cut after inflation. ICBC offered COPE 378 less - a four-year contract with one-percent increases in the last two years.
Government workers cannot subsidize the operation of the B.C. government through continued wage cuts. A looming shortage of professionals is forecast in the next couple of years and real wage cuts only exacerbate the problem. Maintaining a strong professional workforce after years of job cuts is a priority for the PEA. Three-quarters of British Columbians don't want the men and women - and 60 per cent of the public service are women - on the front lines of public service falling further behind, according to a recent Environics survey. Seventy-four per cent said public sector workers should at least get a cost of living increase without having to take cuts elsewhere. A majority also supports our one-day strike.
We do not want to increase your taxes. Instead, the BCGEU made several proposals that would generate additional revenue for the government.
Of 197 public liquor stores, 175 are closed on Sundays. Opening them seven days a week would generate up to $100 million annually. Respected economist Don Drummond examined Ontario's debt and recommended aggressively expanding the number of public liquor stores to generate more government revenue.
Assigning additional duties to the B.C. Sheriff Services would save money and generate revenue. In Alberta, sheriffs handle traffic duties alongside the RCMP. The successful program was doubled in size in the first year, and spawned $111 million in new government revenue in 2009-10, half of which was returned to general revenue. Expanded sheriff duties would also reduce health-care costs by improving road safety, alleviating delays in courts and freeing up police to focus on the Criminal Code.
COPE 378 has suggested savings ICBC will gain by implementing new technologies and work processes should be returned to its workers as improvements to wages and benefits. The time for a fair deal for public sector workers is now.
Darryl Walker is BCGEU president, Scott McCannell is PEA executive director, and David Black is president of COPE Local 378.