Public support high for union but fragile for government
PV Vancouver Bureau
After nearly two weeks of limited but highly effective strikes, the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) had reached a tentative three-year agreement with the government’s Public Service Agency. The deal covers 33,000 bargaining unit members working in direct government service. While it has not been ratified at PV press time, the union is confident its members will vote in favor.
The union’s job actions were carried out by hundreds of employees at four liquor and cannabis distribution centres around the province, in Kamloops, Victoria, Delta and Richmond. This tactic allowed most BCGEU members to remain on the job providing public services, while hitting a significant private sector group – the liquor, entertainment and tourism industry. By squeezing the distribution of alcohol and cannabis products, BCGEU members immediately cut into the profits of a powerful group of employers who soon began demanding action to re-open the distribution centres.
The limited strike action also provided an opening for working people around the province to indicate their support for BCGEU’s main demand – significant pay increases and cost-of-living clauses. The level of public support was seen in various ways, including when Communist Party clubs in several cities held banner and leaflet actions at the constituency offices of NDP MLAs.
One Saturday afternoon action at the office of Vancouver Point Grey MLA David Eby was typical. Eby is almost certain to be the next premier and he represents a fairly well-off neighbourhood. But most local residents who took leaflets on West Broadway that day talked about strongly supporting the BCGEU demands for a meaningful pay increase and inflation protection. It was clear from several such actions that public support for the NDP is fragile, five years after they drove the Liberals out of office.
With public pressure building, the government was compelled to get back to the bargaining table and present an improved wage offer.
The deal announced by BCGEU President Stephanie Smith on September 7 provides general increases of 3.24 percent in the first year, between 5.5 and 6.75 percent in the second year, and 2 to 3 percent in the third year (both of those years dependent on inflation). Among other gains, it also includes specific increases for a wide range of job categories, two annual days of supplemental leave for all employees, two days cultural leave for Indigenous employees and five paid days of sick leave for all employees.
Veteran observers of the labour scene in British Columbia note that these numbers represent just over 13 percent pay increases over three years, less than the widely expected inflation rates. On the other hand, the deal is a significant improvement over the NDP government’s initial stubborn insistence on much lower increases.
The BCGEU’s 33,000-member public service bargaining unit was the first of many public sector unions in negotiations this year. Unions representing an estimated total of 384,000 employees are in bargaining during 2022 and the BCGEU struggle is widely seen as a template for other potential settlements in the health and education sectors.
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