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Labour strife heats up, but it could work for BC Liberals

VANCOUVER - British Columbians could be in for some nuisances this fall as labour unrest in the public sector threatens to disrupt daily living from stopping the bus to work, to blocking car insurance claims, to cramping university students' campus routines.

Thousands of workers are gearing up to push back against their employers this week in a range of separate union disputes, each with the potential to escalate.

But while residents brace for hassles, on the political front it just might be the silver-lining the faltering B.C. Liberal party needs as incumbents grind toward a spring election, says one expert on politics.

Prof. Hamish Telford, who heads the political science department at the University of the Fraser Valley, says the party's popularity is running so low, the governing Liberals might have to resort to "more desperate tactics."

"If they cannot meet the union demands quickly, then I think they have an incentive to drag this on as long as possible," Telford said.

"Labour strife through the fall and winter, I think, would make the NDP quite uncomfortable."

Last week, Liberal Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced a round of restraint is on its way after revealing low natural gas prices have cost the provincial government $1.1 billion in revenue.

The party has also been trailing the opposition New Democrats in public opinion polls for several months now.

Telford said the Liberals could capitalize on the labour situation by showing British Columbians they're tough on public-sector unions, which include many white-collar employees who are well paid with excellent benefits, pensions and good job security.

The strategy would also signal to the business community — known for its Liberal support — that the party is standing its ground on contract demands in order to balance the budget, he said.

Further, Telford said the New Democrats would have to be wary of being overly sympathetic to the unions because otherwise the Liberals could portray them as fiscally reckless and irresponsible.

"Precipitating a fight with public-sector unions might not be a bad thing for the Liberals," he said.

Over the coming week, several unions have indicated they'll forge ahead in their aims of reaching difficult deals through offensive moves.

The B.C. Government Employees Union is stepping up on-going job action by instituting an overtime ban on Monday for the province's 25,000 public servants.

The measure follows a union manoeuvre earlier this month, when workers conducted their first full-scale walkout in more than two decades, albeit only for one day.

On Tuesday, more than 1,500 staff with the Insurance Corporation of B.C. are poised to go on strike from 55 different locations across the province. Many of those workers did not join co-workers who partook in the BCGEU one day Sept. 5 strike.

Also on Tuesday, support staff at the University of Victoria will resume bargaining after shutting down several campus buildings last week with walkouts. But they're expected to continue picketing until talks are restarted in order to keep the pressure up.

Each of three Canadian Union of Public Employees that represent the support staff will spend a day negotiating non-monetary issues.

Also in Victoria, bus drivers and other transit workers have now armed their union with an overwhelming strike mandate. Members of the Canadian Auto Workers union Local 333 voted 98 per cent in favour of job action, but it did not give 72-hour strike notice. The union re-opened contracts talks last Friday.

Next week, another 1,200 workers at Simon Fraser University's three campuses will also hold a strike vote. If the mandate is clear, members will be permitted to serve 72-hour strike notice and be in position for a legal campus-wide walkout.

"My hope is that we get back to the table, we find the middle ground that is going to get us the collective agreement so that we can continue to provide the services the folks at B.C. need," said Darryl Walker, BCGEU president.

He said he's not surprised by the discord among not just his, but a number of other unions, pointing to cuts and wage freezes in recent year while the cost of living has gone up.

"Our expectations are not unreasonable," said Andrea Duncan, an early childhood educator in Squamish, B.C.

She was rallying on Thursday outside the Vancouver's art gallery for a deal for community social services workers, who are part of the BCGEU.

"We just need to catch up so we can actually pay our bills and survive. In this particular sector, many of the workers have to hold two to three jobs, which is atrocious."

Also attending the rally was Chris Mikulasik, from Prince George, who was diagnosed with diabetes earlier this year that is costing him an extra $100 for treatment each month to avoid being hospitalized.

The wide-ranging labour strife reflects poorly on Premier Christy Clark's government, he said.

"They no longer have control of the labour movement," he said. "The angst that's been building up over 10 years with the Liberal government has come to the surface."

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