3% not enough for BCGEU

After a three-year wage freeze, the B.C. government is offering the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union a three-per-cent pay raise, but the union says it's not enough.

BCGEU President Darryl Walker said Friday talks with the province have collapsed and its members will hold a strike vote.

The three-year contract that expires Saturday was under the government's net-zero mandate, the same round of negotiations that has prompted teachers to strike after their five-year deal expired in 2011.

The new BCGEU contract does not face the same restrictions and it falls under the government's co-operative gains mandate, which leaves room for wage increases by finding productivity improvements or savings.

Walker, who tried to steer away from the government's current popularity challenges and its ongoing contract issues with the B.C. Teachers Federation, said his members want to catch up financially after seeing their spending power decline by more than five per cent.

"Our members have not had a pay increase in three years," Walker said at a news conference to announce the breakdown in contract talks.

"Our members know full well, as everyone does, that these are tough economic times," he said. "Heck, they work in government agencies that have faced cut after cut. The final straw came this week when the government tabled their wage offer: it was well below inflation."

Walker said the union countered the government's wage offer of three per cent over two years with a demand of an increase that includes the rate of inflation plus an extra one per cent. Today, that would add up to about four per cent a year.

The BCGEU negotiations involve about 25,000 union members, including sheriffs, probation officers, social workers and liquor store and warehouse employees.

Of the province's 370,000 public sector workers, about 300,000 are union members employed at Crown corporations and agencies, and in the Kindergarten to Grade 12 education, post-secondary, health and community social services sectors.

The Finance Ministry estimates that more than 99 per cent of B.C.'s unionized public sector workers could be negotiating new contracts this year.

Walker said the BCGEU expects to have its strike vote tabulated by May 4, after which the union will ask that contract talks resume. He said he expects the union's strike vote will add strength to its contract demands.

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon issued a statement saying he believed the two sides can reach a settlement, but the government's top priority is ensuring it balances the budget next year.

"This is not a net-zero mandate, and the government has worked hard to find savings within the 2012 co-operative gains mandate that could be used for modest wage increases for our public service employees," said Falcon's statement.

"B.C. has a legislated commitment to balance the budget in 2013-14, it is our first priority and we will meet that commitment."

The ministry says the key feature of the co-operative gains mandate "provides public sector employers with the ability to negotiate modest wage increases through productivity gains or through savings within existing budgets, resulting in actual increases in compensation."

In the last round of public sector negotiations, the government stuck to a net zero mandate, which meant any improvements in a collective agreement had to be offset by savings generated from changes to the agreement.

Walker said the union's suggestions for co-operative gains in the latest round of bargaining were rejected by the government.

He said the union suggested Sunday government liquor store openings and expanding sheriffs' services to include police traffic work, estimated to generate up to $350 million in extra revenues, but the government didn't agree.

"The piece that was most difficult was trying to figure out exactly what co-operative gains meant, and what it meant to the employer," said Walker. "We thought that the liquor store opening on Sunday was co-operative gains. Apparently not."

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