'Expectations will be high': Public unions across B.C. prepare to bargain for better pay

Nearly every major public sector union in the province have their contracts up for renewal in 2019, including nurses, teachers, civil servants and employees with ICBC and BC Hydro.

Doctors, lawyers, nurses and many other public servants see collective agreements expire in 2019

'Respectful open fair processes will lead to an agreement, and hopefully will lead to some improvements for public servants,' said Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour. (Irene Lanzinger)

On Saturday, B.C. Teachers' Federation president Glen Hansman was the first president of a public sector union in B.C. this year to say he'll soon be looking to increase the salary of his members.

"We don't set our (bargaining) objectives until the fall, but it could be fair to assume that, given affordability issues in British Columbia, salary is going to be very important to look at," he told delegates at the union's annual general meeting. 

And while he may have been the first, he won't be the last.

Nearly every major public sector union in the province have their contracts up for renewal in 2019, including nurses and other health-care workers, teachers and school support staff, civil servants and employees with ICBC and BC Hydro.

The collective agreement covering Doctors of B.C. will also expire.

Having to negotiate new contracts for over 200,000 public-sector employees at the same time will cause some difficulty for all sides involved, predicts Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at UBC's Sauder School of Business.

"The expectations will be high among unionized workers, because they have a more friendly government in Victoria, but that involves some very large expenditures, and this is a government that is going to be cautious about those kinds of things. So, it's not going to be an easy round of negotiations," said Thompson, who has studied union issues in B.C. for decades.

"They'd like the workers to get a little more money, but if the government makes an exception for one group, there's a dozen others in line behind them, saying they should have an exception." 

Wages stagnant under last government

The majority of public unions in B.C. have seen wage increases under the rate of inflation for the last decade, with many signing agreements of 5.5 per cent over five years during the B.C. Liberal government's final term in office.

"Bargaining with the Liberals was very, very difficult, and as a result, many workers are behind in both wages and working conditions. So, I think workers will be seeking improvements," said B.C. Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger.

"Wages are behind for many public servants in the province, so yes, I think people will be looking for wage increases."

But Lanzinger rejected the idea NDP governments give overly generous contracts to unions that provide them campaign donations.

"That hasn't been our experience in public sector bargaining ... we know there are restrictions sometimes, on money, so there's a reality to be faced there too. But respectful open fair processes will lead to an agreement, and hopefully will lead to some improvements for public servants," she said. 

Thompson said the NDP's record on labour settlements was nuanced. 

"In latter days of the Glen Clark administration, there were a lot of details that looked a little rich, which they tried to cover ... but, on the other hand, there have been some very hard negotiations and back-to-work laws, going back to Dave Barrett. That's what brought him down ultimately — he passed back-to-work legislation and when the election came, a lot of his labour friends stayed home. So it cuts both ways."

The government didn't have an explicit contingency for additional expenses from collective agreements in their three-year financial forecasts in the 2018 budget. But they did write that "the costs of ratified collective agreements will be reflected in Budget 2019." 

However, bargaining for many unions will begin well before that budget is released.

"Bargaining is always difficult," said Lanzinger.

"And it's always about making compromises at the end of the day. So, we'll see how that plays out." 

To hear more from Glen Hansman, president of the BCTF, click on the audio link below:

The BC Teachers Federation says higher wages are needed to attract more teachers to the province. 10:56
 

With files from The Canadian Press

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