01/10/2012 01:45 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. government employees begin contract negotiations

Unions representing nearly a quarter million public-sector employees in British Columbia are about to open contract negotiations with the government, and they are making wage increases a key demand.

Darryl Walker, president of the 60,000-member B.C. Government and Services Employees' Union, said employees whose contracts will expire at the end of March will not settle without a wage hike.

"What our members are saying is the services we provide to the people of British Columbia are extremely important. To continue to provide those services, our members need some kind of recognition. And part of that recognition is a wage increase," said Walker

"It's time that the work that we do and the services we provide to British Columbians are recognized."

The BCGEU includes government administration staff, social workers and university instructors.

"We're the leanest public sector per capita in Canada," he said. "In many cases, we lose people to Alberta simply because more money is paid."

He said corrections officers and sheriffs trained in B.C. have opted to work in that province for higher wages.

The union is proposing the government open more liquor stores on Sundays as one way to bring in an estimated $150 million per year to pay for wage increases.

"We believe there's money there straight away, you simply have to open liquor stores. Our members are interested in that work ... They're willing to work on Sundays."

Confrontations ahead

One labour expert says the union's determination to get a wage increase will make the coming negotiations confrontational.

John Fryer of the University of Victoria said unions calling for wage hikes will be pitting themselves against a government that has said it will not negotiate for contracts that will cost taxpayers more money.

Taxpayers who pay public-sector workers will be caught in the middle if public-sector workers freeze services to protest frozen wages, said Fryer, who was chief negotiator for the BCGEU in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I think we could see a confrontation about the very right to strike for public-sector workers, and I think that's what we're getting a feeling of around the teachers' dispute," he said.

Teachers have been staging job action for more than five months and have refused to write report cards, participate in extra-curricular activities or supervise students. Besides teachers, nurses and doctors will also be negotiating new contracts this year.

Illegal strikes and court fines have resulted in previous battles between unions and the provincial government.

In 2002, the Liberals rewrote health-care contracts to allow for widespread contracting out, leading to a 2007 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that struck down sections of the law and forced the government to negotiate a $75-million compensation training package.

In 2004, after the Hospital Employees Union took a strike vote, the government imposed a contract and slashed wages by 15 per cent.

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, who is the minister in charge of the contracts, did not respond to a request for comment.

"The right to strike for public-sector workers is the story that I'm watching as the year goes on," Fryer said, adding that B.C. Premier Christy Clark doesn't have a mandate from the public for any heavy-handed tactics including imposed legislation because she has never run in a general election as the leader of her party.

Working in harmony

For his part, Walker said he believes Clark, who was selected to lead the Liberals a year ago after former premier Gordon Campbell resigned, has a genuine desire to work in harmony with various organizations, including unions.

But he said the province's unwillingness to hike public-sector wages to realize its goal of balancing the budget by 2014 is unrealistic.

"The imposition of collective agreements, just like the imposition of legislation to take away the rights in contracts, is quite simply undemocratic."

Walker said the union isn't prepared to cut any benefits for higher wages because that would be like "buying our own dog."

Before the 2010 Olympics, the B.C. government offered unions a $6 billion package, including $1 billion for settlements through 2009 and 2010 as a way to buy labour peace during the Games.

But unions say the one-time payout to employees, believed to be up to $6,000 per worker, didn't amount to any wage increases.