Pressure mounts on B.C. government as public sector strike drags on

Click to play video: 'BCGEU strike: Cost of living adjustment for public sector unions'
BCGEU strike: Cost of living adjustment for public sector unions
Legislative bureau chief Keith Baldrey has done some calculations based on the inflation rate being is asking for by other public sector unions. – Aug 18, 2022

Pressure is mounting on the province to find a resolution to a strike by unionized government workers, as other unions come out to show support.

In the four days since the BC General Employees Union (BCGEU) began job action, leaders with the nurses’, teachers’ and hospital employees unions have all joined the picket lines.

Click to play video: 'BCGEU strike action begins at liquor distribution centres'
BCGEU strike action begins at liquor distribution centres

“It’s not just public sector unions, it’s the labour movement in general,” BCGEU president Stephanie Smith told Global News, Thursday.

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“People recognize that BCGEU members, the 33,000 in the public service, aren’t just fighting for their own wage protections, they’re fighting for wage protections for all workers.”

Numerous B.C. public sector unions are currently without a deal, and are pressing the government for a cost of living adjustment in the ballpark of five per cent, amid historic inflation rates.

So far, the province has offered the BCGEU wage increases amounting to about 11 per cent over three years, with a $2,500 signing bonus.

Provincial officials are hoping that a deal with the union, among B.C.’s biggest, will set the chain of dominoes in motion to settle disputes with the other public sectors.

The Hospital Employees Union has currently paused negotiations with the province, while the nurses won’t begin until the fall.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is currently at the table. Union president Clint Johnston said the province’s latest offer is far below what teachers are seeking, but that there has been movement.

Click to play video: 'BCGEU strike: How it could impact B.C.’s hospitality industry'
BCGEU strike: How it could impact B.C.’s hospitality industry

“The workers of B.C. are united, they’re together, and they’re supporting each other in pursuing what we think is really pretty simple and fair, which is a cost of living increase to our salaries so we don’t fall further and further behind,” he said of the support for the BCGEU.

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“But I think the fact that both sides are still working and there’s movement should give people a lot of hope.”

B.C. teachers last went on strike in 2014, and with the school year just weeks away, parents are watching the situation anxiously.

The disruption caused by a teachers’ strike, however, would pale in comparison to job action by B.C. nurses as the province heads into respiratory virus season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are seeking an agreement that respects nurses. We know the public supports us but it doesn’t always feel this way when it comes to the public sector employers and the government,” BCNU vice-president Adriane Gear said.

Click to play video: 'Alcohol slowly running dry for service industry after BCGEU strike'
Alcohol slowly running dry for service industry after BCGEU strike

So far, the BCGEU strike has been limited to picketing warehouses used by the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch.

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But that has ratcheted up pressure from another quarter: the province’s restaurant industry, which warns that it’s running dry.

B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association president Ian Tostenson said the shortage comes as the sector is battling inflation while still recovering from pandemic restrictions.

“We have no access to product. The product in the system now is the only product available. We’re against the ropes,” he said.

“Most restaurants likely will be starting to show shortages as early as next week. We already missed one order period this week and we’ll likely miss one next week too.”

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson was not available for an interview.

In a statement, the ministry said pay for the public sector currently amounts to $38.6 billion, more than half of B.C.’s budget, and that every one per cent wage increase across the entire sector would cost the province $311 per year.

“The current wage offer under the Shared Recovery Mandate has been designed to provide the most fair and reasonable increases that are affordable within the fiscal plan,” the statement reads.

In the meantime, Smith said the BCGEU remains “resolved” to get a deal its members consider fair.

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“Public sector workers kept the lights on kept the doors open, kept the wheels turning” during the pandemic, she said.

“We need an agreement that recognizes that contribution and protects their wages against inflation.”

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