11/03/2012 05:38 EDT | Updated 01/03/2013 05:12 EST

Workers vote 96 per cent in favour of strike, aim to protect benefits

VANCOUVER - Health-care workers representing 11 unions in British Columbia have voted 96 per cent in favour of a strike.

They include a diverse group of employees from licensed practical nurses, ambulance paramedics, pharmacy technicians and cleaners at hospitals, long-term care homes and emergency health services.

Most of the workers are members of the Hospital Employees Union, but some are also represented by the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, the B.C. Nurses' Union and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 873.

Negotiations are being conducted by the Facilities Bargaining Association, and spokeswoman Bonnie Pearson said the vote sends a strong message by 46,000 people who didn't get a raise in their last two-year contract.

Pearson said the Health Employers Association and the government are aiming to claw back benefits to pay for a modest wage hike, but the association won't sign any such deal.

"They're looking for a 25-per-cent saving around the area of benefits, or equivalent, in the collective agreement and that is the difficulty in this sector," she said Saturday.

"Government has found settlements in other parts of the public sector that have not required unions and their members to give up substantial benefits or collective agreement protections."

Negotiations began in February, and the current contract expired on March 31.