Workers at three liquor distribution centres in B.C. were on the picket lines Tuesday in the first of what could be a series of walkouts by the province's largest public-sector union as it presses for higher wages.
The one-day strike by members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union targeted distribution warehouses in Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops. Only one government-run liquor store, in Vancouver, was closed to the public because of the strike.
"We are prepared to do whatever it takes. All we want is a fair and equitable deal for all," said Mark Guolo, one of the members on the picket line.
The dispute comes as B.C. continues to insist new collective agreements must not cost the province any additional money — a policy that is likely to hamper negotiations with other public-sector workers and further strain relations between the government and its unions.
The strike centres around contract negotiations for more than 25,000 members of the union, which is negotiating a collective agreement to replace one that expired at the end of March. The workers include sheriffs, probation officers, social workers and liquor store and warehouse employees.
'Not happy' with government offers
The union is seeking a 3.5 per cent wage hike in the first year and a cost of living increase in the second, while the provincial government has offered a two per cent wage increase in the first year and 1.5 in the second.
Negotiations headed to mediation, but those talks broke down last month, said BCGEU president Darryl Walker.
"We want to identify to the public that we are not happy with the wage offer that has come from the provincial government," Walker said in an interview Tuesday.
"They haven't had a pay raise since 2009 and are basically falling further and further behind," he said of his union members.
The workers' most recent contract was negotiated under the province's so-called "net-zero" policy, which said any pay increases must be offset by concessions elsewhere in a collective agreement.
For the current round of public-sector bargaining, the province has revised the policy slightly and given it a new name: "co-operative gains." Workers can negotiate small wage increases if they can identify equivalent savings in their ministry's budget.
Walker said the union is playing by those rules, putting forward proposals to make the government more money to help pay for wage increases, including opening government liquor stores on Sundays and expanding sheriffs services.
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said Friday that a "generous" offer has been made and any strike action would mean the proposal is withdrawn.
The current fight could foreshadow negotiations with other public-sector workers, with more than a quarter-million union members negotiating contracts this year. The BCGEU alone represents roughly 65,000 workers and the dispute behind the liquor store walkout only involves a portion of them.
Privatization deal questioned
The union targeted liquor sites for its one-day strike because of recently announced government plans to privatize the Liquor Distribution Branch warehouse and distribution service, according to Walker.
"We don't think the privatization has been thought through at all. We think it was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction," said Walker.
"We've yet to see a business plan for it. We don't know what it is going to cost the people of British Columbia, but we believe it is going to cost them additional money for the product."
Walker says the current system funnels money back into government services and offers price protection for remote and rural communities, keeping prices the same as urban areas.
"Is that going to change, or is there a guarantee that is going to stay the same? We don't think so. So we think this is a service to British Columbians they are going to lose," said Walker.
But the B.C. government says liquor prices aren't part of the privatization plan and setting prices will remain under government control.
On Tuesday, the government announced six companies have made proposals to take over the province's Liquor Distribution Branch: ContainerWorld Forwarding Services, Exel Canada, Hillebrand Westlink, Kuehne and Nagel, Metro Supply Chain Group and Schenker of Canada.
It plans to shortlist the companies by July 20 and make a final decision by October, but it says it will only agree to privatize the liquor distribution system if it saves the province money and improves efficiency.