Labour expert warns of conflict with public sector contracts up for renewal

With the government employees union heading into contract talks today – and doctors and nurses soon to follow – a B.C. labour expert is predicting a chaotic and confrontational year for trade unions – with nearly 250,000 of the province's public sector contracts up for negotiation in 2012 and the government taking a hard line.
University of Victoria professor John Fryer said that conflict is inevitable, with unions pushing for pay raises after two years of freezes. Labour is facing down the BC Liberals – who have said they will block any contracts that raise costs to taxpayers. The threat of conflict again raises the spectre of the government impinging on workers' right to strike, Fryer added.
“I think we could see a confrontation about the very right to strike for public-sector workers, and I think that's what we're getting a feeling of around the teachers' dispute,” Fryer said. “It's going to come down to some confrontational relationships.
“The right to strike for public-sector workers is the story that I'm watching as the year goes on.”
Fryer, who was the BC Government Employee Union (BCGEU) chief negotiator for several decades starting in the 1960s, warns that B.C. residents may be caught in the middle if the conflicting positions are not resolved.
With 25,000 contracts up for renewal in March, the 25,000-member BCGEU said it will not settle for continued wage freezes and cautioned the government not to prevent workers from exercizing their right to strike.
“It's time that the work that we do and the services we provide to British Columbians are recognized,” said union president Darryl Walker, who represents social workers, university instructors and government civil servants in the province. “We're the leanest public sector per capita in Canada.
“The imposition of collective agreements, just like the imposition of legislation to take away the rights in contracts, is quite simply undemocratic.”
Walker said that, despite some rhetoric from the Province barring any wage increases, he believes Premier Christy Clark has a desire to resolve the conflict and negotiate in good faith.
The province's teachers have already been taking job action for the past five months – refusing to to unpaid extra-curricular work or write report cards. The union recently criticized education minister George Abbott for being unwilling to budge on frozen wages.
“The minister is clinging to his net-zero mandate and that has to change in order for us to respectfully find a way forward,” said B.C. Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert, who said of her meeting yesterday with Abbott: “ I don't think very much came of it.”
BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair called upon the province to not penalize or blame workers for B.C.'s economic woes.
“I think that British Columbians want respect for the people who serve them and they don't want the same old confrontations that have characterized the last 10 years,” Sinclair said, noting that since announcing the wage freeze in 2009, B.C.'s cabinet ministers, senior government staff and MLAs have all had their salaries boosted.
The spectre of government impinging on workers' right to strike has precedent. In 2002, shortly after being elected into government, the BC Liberals imposed health care contracts opening the door to widespread outsourcing of contracts. That decision angered unions, who took their fight to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 2007, that court struck down sections of the law and ordered B.C. to negotiate a compensation package worth $75 million.
The Hospital Employees Union voted to strike in 2004, after the government imposed a contract and axed salaries by 15 per cent.
The minister in charge of contracts – finance minister Kevin Falcon – did not respond to The Canadian Press' request for comment.
With files from The Canadian Press.

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