Union hopes strike boosts wage demands

Provincial government workers took to the streets for one day of job action last Wednesday with four picket lines seen here in Terrace

BCGEU members Petra Burdett

Provincial government workers took to the streets for one day of job action last Wednesday with four picket lines seen here in Terrace.

Terrace members of the British Columbia Government Employees’ Union (BCGEU) could be seen at government offices around town on Sept. 5, most notably outside of the liquor store and government services offices at Eby and Lazelle. Picketers could also been seen at the Ministry of Transportation office on Keith and the BC Forestry office on Kalum.

More than 27,000 unionized government workers across the province participated in the one-day strike, which they hope will call attention to the fact that direct government workers have not had a pay raise in three-and-a-half years, said BCGEU Treasurer Stephanie Smith, who was in Terrace from union head offices in Vancouver.

“If you take into account inflation, this has actually equalled about a five per cent wage reduction,” she said. “We’ve fallen far behind the cost of living.”

The union is asking for a 3.5 per cent wage increase in the first year, to make up for the two years of no wage increases they agreed to in 2010,  and a cost-of-living adjustment in the second year that will be determined at the end of March 2013.

Talks broke down during contract negotiations between the BCGEU and the provincial government this spring, and the two sides have not budged from their positions with the province, saying this week that workers should not expect a wage increase anytime soon.

The government has offered a 3.5 per cent wage increase over two years.

Strikers were joined on the lines by the Professional Employees Association (PEA) and the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE), which represents ICBC.

In Victoria last Wednesday, Premier Christy Clark weighed in on the walkout.

“The government’s position on this hasn’t changed,” Clark said. “I am not going back to taxpayers for more money in order to give government workers a raise. We are in very tough economic times and we have to balance our budget.”

But the union’s position is that wage increases do not have to be financed by taxpayers.

“We would like to see our public liquor stores open on Sundays and have extended hours, and ideally even expand the public liquor store system,” said Smith, noting that Ontario is bring in a similar model to the one the BCGEU proposed to the government. “We expect that to bring in $100 million annually.”

The union has also suggested using sheriffs to take over traffic enforcement duties from the RCMP, enabling them to do criminal code work.

“This could result in a total of about $180 million annually,” she said.

But the government has not listened to their suggestions, she said.

“They absolutely refuse to listen to us,” she said. “As a matter of fact, they’re looking at privatizing the liquor distribution branch warehouse system which would take away that money as a revenue stream for the citizens of British Columbia.”

This is the first time in 20 years this many government workers have been on the picket line. Essential service workers like firefighters, child protection services, and correctional officers did not participate in the job action.