By Darryl Walker
For the first time in more than 20 years, the entire government of British Columbia was behind picket lines on Sept. 5 in support of a fair and reasonable collective agreement.
More than 27,000 government and ICBC workers were 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.
They were striking because we need a fair deal and Victoria is not listening. The one-day job action impacted many of the 1,785 government work sites in 153 B.C. communities.
For one day only, public liquor stores were closed. ICBC offices that are located in government buildings and staffed by COPE 378 members were also shuttered.
Public service workers, who are critical to the health and safety of the public, remained on the job. BCGEU members who are child-protection workers, correctional officers and forest firefighters were working.
We have not taken the decision to strike lightly. The last government-wide strike was in 1988.
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, and their wages have been stagnant since 2009.
Our 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.
Non-union workers across Canada can expect average wage increases of 3.2 per cent next year, according to global consulting firm Mercer.
In contrast, Victoria’s final offer to the PEA and BCGEU amounted to two per cent in the first year and 1.5 per cent in year 2, a further wage cut after inflation.
Government workers cannot subsidize the operation of the B.C. government through continued wage cuts.
Three-quarters of British Columbians don’t want the men and women – and 60 per cent of the public service is 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 supported 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, including opening public liquor stores on Sundays, which would generate up to $100 million per year.
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. 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.
The time for a fair deal for public sector workers is now.
Darryl Walker is the BCGEU president.