VANCOUVER - About 27,000 public servants across British Columbia staged a one-day strike Wednesday, marking the union's first full-scale walkout in more than two decades in the face of a government that has repeatedly warned any substantial wage increases would inevitably trigger higher taxes.
The walkout, involving roughly 25,000 members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union and about 2,000 more from two other unions, is the most significant job action to date in an escalating dispute between the province and its unionized workers.
It also happened the same day Premier Christy Clark shuffled her cabinet, throwing a new finance minister into the middle of the labour unrest, though the premier immediately suggested her government's stance would remain the same.
Union president Darryl Walker said the strike, affecting a range of services such as government-run liquor stores and government permitting, was designed to ensure the public understands what those workers actually do.
"We don't want to take the services out, but we need the general public to know the services we provide and how important they are," Walker said after chatting with picketing workers outside provincial Crown counsel offices in downtown Vancouver.
"And we need the government to know that we can take those services away. We don't want to, but we think we need to."
Walker noted the union hasn't staged a widespread walkout since 1988.
In July, workers at three liquor distribution centres in Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops walked off the job for a day, but most members of the public weren't affected by the walkout and wouldn't have passed by picket lines of striking workers.
Walker wouldn't say what action, if any, the union may consider next. He said a prolonged strike hasn't been ruled out, though he insisted the union would prefer a negotiated settlement and is willing to hash one out whenever the province wants.
Most government workers, including those in Walker's union, have just finished two years of wage freezes under the government's so-called net zero mandate, which dictated that any wage increases had to be offset by concessions elsewhere in the contract.
The new round of negotiations is happening under a revised version of that scheme, dubbed "co-operative gains." The province says "modest" increases are possible if equivalent savings can be found elsewhere in a ministry's budget, but the bottom line is the same: contracts can't cost the government more money.
With that in mind, the province has previously offered a two-per-cent increase starting in July 1, 2012, and a 1.5 per cent increase on July 1 of next year.
The union, on the other hand, has asked for 3.5 per cent starting April 1 — three months earlier than the government offer — and a cost-of-living increase in the second year.
Walker said it wouldn't take much to bridge that gap, and he called on the government to invite the union back to the negotiating table.
"We hope then that there would be a renewed mandate, a little bit more than what has been offered thus far," said Walker.
"I don't think we're that far apart."
The union has suggested the province open liquor stores on Sunday and shift some traffic enforcement duties to sheriffs to help pay for wage increases, though the government has rejected those ideas.
Until now, Walker's union and others have been dealing with Kevin Falcon, who was finance minister until he stepped down last week.
It was Falcon's job to enforce and publicly defend the controversial net-zero mandate. When the government proposed its latest offer to the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, Falcon suggested it was the best and final offer the union could expect.
On Wednesday, Falcon was replaced by Mike de Jong, former health minister, though Premier Christy Clark suggested the change in her cabinet wouldn't be accompanied by a change in the government's approach to its unions.
Clark repeated her government's talking point that higher wages would be impossible without raising taxes.
"I am not going back to taxpayers for more money in order to give some government workers a raise," Clark said in Victoria.
De Jong issued his own written statement Wednesday evening that also did nothing to signal even a slight change in tack.
It was a word-for-word replica of a statement issued a day earlier by Shirley Bond, who was filling in as finance minister since last week.
Walker was more optimistic.
His appearance in downtown Vancouver happened before Clark formally announced her new cabinet, but the union distributed an electronic audio recording later in the day featuring Walker reacting to de Jong's appointment.
"I've always found Mr. de Jong honest and fair," Walker said in the audio clip.
"I think he's got a lot of experience. He's been around for a good number of years. ... I think it's probably a good choice on Ms. Clark's part. Hopefully, Mr. de Jong will have some way of now trying to get the government and the (union) back to the table so we can get the collective agreement we so badly need."
Wednesday's strike involved workers at 1,800 work sites in 153 communities across the province, according to the union. Locals of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union and the Professional Employees Association were also participating.
The walkout did not involve workers who provide "essential services," such as jail staff, court sheriffs, child protection and social workers, and firefighters who target forest fires, among others.
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