British Columbia

Why are there so many labour disputes in B.C. right now?

Job actions province-wide — involving both public and private-sector unions — are mainly due to contract cycles running out simultaneously.

Job actions across the province are largely coincidental, but there are common threads

Bus drivers are in a dispute with their employer, Coast Mountain Bus Company, which operates public transit in Metro Vancouver under the TransLink system. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Labour disputes across the province have been dominating the news cycle for weeks now:

  • Legal aid staff workers have announced work-to-rule job action.
  • Saanich school support workers were on strike for three weeks.
  • Faculty at the University of Northern B.C. have walked off the job. 
  • Western Forest Products employees have been on strike since July.
  • Metro Vancouver transit workers are taking job action. 
  • Hotel workers spent weeks picketing in downtown Vancouver. 
  • B.C. teachers are in stalled contract negotiations.
  • Emergency dispatchers are still in mediated talks.

So why is there so much labour unrest right now?

"These are coincidental for the most part," said Tom Knight, professor of human resources and industrial relations at the Sauder School of Business. "There's no great contagion of labour unrest about to unleash itself." 

Hotel workers picket at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver on Oct. 8, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It largely has to do with the timing of various contracts, some dating back to the 2010 Olympics when there was a desire to get labour issues settled ahead of the Winter Games. 

That created a string of collective agreements up for negotiation in a short time period. 

"We are in a major cycle of bargaining in the public sector," said Laird Cronk, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour. "But they each have their own reasons for why they're occurring and they're not all the same." 

He added it's not unusual to see tough rounds of public-sector bargaining and pointed out that the vast majority of contracts are reached without a dispute. 

Eighty-two collective agreements have been reached between the government and unions in the latest round, translating to 70 per cent of the public sector and involving 250,000 workers over the past year or so. 

Common themes emerging

The bulk of the labour disputes are in the public sector and, while each has its own distinct issues, there are some commonalities. 

"The disputes in education, for example, with the UNBC faculty and Saanich support workers — in both those situations, the prime argument on the union side is 'Hey, we're the lowest paid in our comparison group,' " said Knight. 

Forestry workers and members of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 rally outside the Western Forest Products office in Nanaimo earlier this week. After four months, the strike has still not been resolved. (Adam van der Zwan/CBC)

The job action involving Metro Vancouver transit workers will get more scrutiny as the impacts become more widespread. 

"The union is being very careful to phase it in so I don't it see escalating rapidly in the near future, depending on what happens with negotiations," Knight said.

It has already triggered calls for government intervention, but the NDP has made it clear the province is not about to interfere with the collective bargaining process anytime soon.

On the private sector side, Knight points out the Western Forest Products strike has been going on since July. 

"My sense is there is some significant relationship issues at the base of that one and that's not surprising given the stress the forestry industry is under," said Knight. 

Underlying frustration: economic inequality

On a broader level, there is an undercurrent of frustration stemming from the struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living. 

"There is pressure where people feel wages have fallen behind," said John Calvert, acting director of Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University. "Your average worker has found it very difficult to keep up with inflation and other factors that are impacting their standard of living."

Wages in many sectors have not increased in parallel with the cost of living, creating a shift in the perception of what is fair and just in terms of compensation.

Faculty at the University of Northern British Columbia stand on the picket line along University Way in Prince George, B.C., on Thursday. Staff are on strike after bargaining over wages failed over the past several months. (Catherine Hansen/CBC)

"We have seen very significant growth, both nationally and in B.C., of the disparity between people who have done very well with the economy — especially those right at the top — and ordinary working people who really have a sense that they have not had their fair share of the prosperity," Calvert said. 

But he adds there's no easy answer, which is why job action will continue to be the primary way those frustrations are channelled.

"Working people are starting to put it on the agenda again by demanding things like settlements that are more appropriate from their point of view."

About the Author

Provincial Affairs Reporter covering the B.C. Legislature. Anything political: tanya.fletcher@cbc.ca

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