TOUGH TIMES FOR PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS

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These are strange days, indeed, for public sector unions. Big developments, not always happy ones, are everywhere. Yet the dearth of labour reporters and collective yawns from editors and the public alike have combined to shine relatively little attention on groundbreaking events that would have dominated front pages not so long ago, when unions were considered important.

These days, it’s all business, all the time. Employees struggling collectively to improve their lot in life, or even just to hang on to what they have, is so last century. Cue the top 10, top 50, top 100 lists of corporations and their powerful executives. Cue the latest real estate blip. Cue record bank profits. Now, that’s news!

In beautiful British Columbia,  a series of astonishing tentative agreements were signed this week, covering more than 50,000 government employees, to scant fanfare. They are like no contracts in the history of public sector bargaining in this province. Snore. Few, apart from the Vancouver Sun, seemed to notice or care. But let this aging, ex-labour hack drone on about why they are significant.

The new deals are a virtually unheard of five years in length. In return for all that labour peace, union members will receive a grand pay hike of barely one per cent a year.   Such are the tenor of the times, however, that one radio host nevertheless referred to them as “significant wage increases”.

Even more unusual, negotiations were concluded four months (!) before existing contracts were due to expire. That is certainly a first. Think of the savings on strike ballots….

And finally, there is the fascinating, added fillip of a bizarre, economic growth booster. The clause holds out the promise of top-up wage increases, should the B.C. economy suddenly roar to life, responding, no doubt, to Christy Clark’s unwavering belief:  If you close your eyes, click your heels and wish real hard, dreams can come true.

(I would have declared such a clause unprecedented, but a quick rummage through the legendary Mickle archives confirmed my hazy recollection of a similar pig-in-a-poke deal in a BCGEU contract from 1982. Called an “economy Image 4recovery formula”, it provided points for increases in productivity, government revenue and inflation. There were also points if unemployment went down. Enough points would trigger a mid-contract raise. The end result, after all the fancy pencil-work, was a big fat doughnut for the union.)

These contracts are in addition to an earlier, tentative landmark agreement involving 17,000 members of the Health Sciences Association, one of the province’s three major health unions. Terms are similar.

These lengthy, ultra-modest settlements, covering a quarter of the provincial public sector, will inevitably serve as benchmarks for other negotiations. Even though the more militant B.C. Nurses Union and the ever-tough B.C. Teachers Federation have yet to begin serious bargaining, the contracts, if approved, are a big coup for a government obsessed with keeping costs low.

Still, it’s not hard to understand why union negotiators in B.C. opted for these long, cheap deals. They represent security. There are no rollbacks. Elsewhere, public sector unions are under heavy attack, their benefits and pensions a target for many governments. it’s in keeping with the race-to-the-bottom attitude that seems to believe forcing wages and pensions lower will somehow boost the economy. Hello? Scrounging for pennies, er nickels, is the new reality.  Look around.

In oil-rich Alberta, where public sector strikes are already illegal, the government has moved to strip the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees of its right to binding arbitration, as well. Even more draconian is a provision making union leaders liable for large fines if they even call for a strike.

This throwback to the reactionary, anti-union days of W.A.C. Bennett  in British Columbia 50 years ago is brought to you by Premier Alison Redford. Yes, the same Alison Redford, who once worked with Nelson Mandela to improve human rights in Africa. “He taught me that the best advice comes from people who have been working in the trenches,” said Redford, on the great man’s death. Hmm…..

And in Ottawa, Treasury Board President Tony Clement continues his merry, anti-union way, with barely a squeak of public concern. At a recent meeting with Clement, Robyn Benson, head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, asked for union consultation on the government’s plans to gut their bargaining rights. She also requested the minister stop Unknowncalling them “union bosses”, a pejorative term belying the fact labour leaders are democratically elected and responsible to their membership. Afterwards, Tony Clement, whose party recently voted to end mandatory union dues collection (a polite term for s right-to-work), tweeted that Benson wanted “co-governance with Parliament. Takes ‘union boss’ to a whole new level.” Thanks, Tony.

He is sponsoring legislation giving the government power to decide who can go and can’t go on strike. It would also compel arbitrators to bring in wage settlements based on the government’s “ability to pay”. So much for free collective bargaining, even for mild, federal unions who hardy ever go on strike.

The media has tended to characterize this as “a battle” with labour. It’s hardly a battle, when one side has all the guns and ammunition, and the other side little more than the right to say “We object”, as their forces are mowed down.

Welcome to the new reality. It’s a funny old world.

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10 thoughts on “TOUGH TIMES FOR PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS

  1. Can’t say as I disagree with much of what you say. Many Canadians are just happy to have jobs today. Our country is being reduced to employing people in, the service industries, tourism and some resources. Virtually all our manufacturing has left for low cost labour locales. We may need a large public service but there is less and less tax base to support it. Cuts are coming, it’s going to be brutal and there will be plenty of complaining and blaming government for failure to protect an enormous public service that we can no longer afford to maintain. It’s another economic cycle that is simply based on world trade and the search for lowest cost sources for commodity goods. Canada and the US are not those places, no matter how efficient we become.

  2. BC’s Community Social Service workers had an economic stability dividend in their 2006 – 2010 agreement… economy tanked, no $$ paid out.

  3. This kind of commentary, backed by experience and voluminous (if messy) files, needs wider exposure, Rod. I’m not going to suggest giving it away to HuffPo or the like, but I hope you find a path to a wider audience.
    (You might start by dropping the overly self-deprecatory warnings, especially in the hed.)
    Cheers.

  4. i took your advice on the hed, Shane…you know me, i’ve got a lot to be self-deprecatory about…

  5. Pingback: TOUGH TIMES FOR PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS | philfeedback

  6. As a reporter, you have nothing to be self-deprecatory about. Amazing how The Sun handled, or didn’t handle, the story–I guess it wasn’t news, only grist for an opinion column. Mind you, Palmer did a good job in his column. As did you.

  7. Well, one wonders whether anyone
    has the time or inclination to read more than a few words about labour, these days…hehe….also, the Sun did a follow-up front page story on the BC settlements, that included “puzzled experts”, my favourite kind…

  8. Interesting piece, Rod. Glad to have someone writing about this.

    One question: My impression of the BCNU of late is that they are hardly militant, and are more likely to get a sweetheart deal with this government because they seem to have turned their back on their fellow unions, been allowed to go raiding, etc. Their last two deals (or just the last one?) were better than those reached with other unions. What makes you call them militant?

  9. Well, i said “more militant”….hehe….the BCNU has a tougher bargaining history than the other unions, and been well rewarded…we’ll see how they handle this “benchmark”….will be hard to crack it…their big issue is workload, not wages…

  10. Just for the record. The Province did run the CP story on page A5 on Wednesday.

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