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Unions, government poised for standoff in B.C.

Unions representing nearly a quarter million public-sector employees in British Columbia are negotiating contracts with the government this year, and a labour expert says there could be chaos on the labour front.

John Fryer of the University of Victoria said unions calling for wage hikes will be pitting themselves against a government that has said it will not negotiate for contracts that will cost taxpayers more money.

"It's going to come down to some confrontational relationships," Fryer said Monday, a day before the B.C. Government and Service Employees union (BCGEU) starts bargaining.

Unions say they won't sign any contracts calling for zero per cent wage increases after two years of no hikes.

Taxpayers who pay public-sector workers will be caught in the middle if public-sector workers freeze services to protest frozen wages, said Fryer, who was chief negotiator for the BCGEU in the 1960s and '70s.

"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."

Teachers have been staging job action for more than five months and have refused to write report cards or supervise students.*

Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said the union met with Education Minister George Abbott on Monday, "but I don't think very much came of it."

"The minister is clinging to his net-zero mandate and that has to change in order for us to respectfully find a way forward," she said.

Besides teachers, nurses and doctors will also be negotiating new contracts this year.

Illegal strikes and court fines have resulted in previous battles between unions and the provincial government.

In 2002, the Liberals rewrote health-care contracts to allow for widespread contracting out, leading to a 2007 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that struck down sections of the law and forced the government to negotiate a $75-million compensation training package.

In 2004, after the Hospital Employees Union took a strike vote, the government imposed a contract and slashed wages by 15 per cent.

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, who is the minister in charge of the contracts, did not respond to requests for comment.

"The right to strike for public-sector workers is the story that I'm watching as the year goes on," Fryer said, adding that the province's unelected premier, Christy Clark, doesn't have a mandate from the public for any heavy-handed tactics including imposed legislation.

Darryl Walker, president of the 25,000-member BCGEU, said employees whose contracts will expire at the end of March will not settle without a wage hike.

"We're the leanest public sector per capita in Canada," he said. "In many cases, we lose people to Alberta simply because more money is paid."

He said corrections officers and sheriffs trained in B.C. have opted to work in that province for higher wages.

"It's time that the work that we do and the services we provide to British Columbians are recognized," he said of the union that also represents government administration staff, social workers and university instructors.

Walker said he believes that Clark, who was selected to lead the Liberals a year ago after former premier Gordon Campbell resigned, has a genuine desire to work with various organizations, including unions.

"The imposition of collective agreements, just like the imposition of legislation to take away the rights in contracts, is quite simply undemocratic."

He said the province's unwillingness to hike public-sector wages to realize its goal of balancing the budget by 2014 is unrealistic.

"We've said that it's too soon depending on what's happening with the economics of the province."

Walker said the union isn't prepared to slash any benefits for higher wages because that would be "like buying our own dog."

In March 2006, the B.C. government and its unions agreed to a four-year, $6-billion package including a $1-billion signing bonus and a wage increase of about 10 per cent as a way to buy labour peace during the 2010 Olympic Games.

In August 2009, the government announced a wage freeze, and Walker said the following March during the next round of negotiations that "the wage freeze was not a big issue" because of the province's budget deficit.

The current set of contract negotiations will be underway as the B.C. government continues trying to cut a deal with Ottawa on how it can pay back $1.6 billion it received to adopt the harmonized sales tax, which voters turfed in a referendum last August.

"It's not our fault that they have to pay all that HST money back," said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour. "They rammed it down people's throats."

He said it's up to the province's finance minister to negotiate a fair deal instead of "starting a fight."

"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, adding cabinet ministers, MLAs and senior government staff have all received wage increases during that time.

*Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly reported the BCGEU has 60,000 members and that a 2006 agreement included a wage increase of eight per cent.

This story also erroneously reported that teachers have refused to participate in extra-curricular activities during their current job action. In fact, participating in extra-curricular activities has always been voluntary and the teachers' union says that remains the case.

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