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Labour Strife Hits BC Roads

Hundreds off the job in highways dispute.

Francis Plourde 7 Jun

Francis Plourde is on staff at The Tyee.

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Almost 400 workers on strike.

Five years after the B.C. Liberals slashed road maintenance funding and nearly 20 years since the Social Credit government privatized highway repairs, highway workers across the province are off the job, protesting what they claim are deteriorating wages and road conditions.

Workers in the North Okanagan became the latest to shoulder their shovels late last month when they started a rotating strike. Similar job actions are also ongoing in South Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, as well as in the Prince George area. Maintenance workers in Merritt, Lytton and Logan Lake are locked out and have been off the job since April 23rd.

In total, there are almost 400 workers on strike across the province with others expected to join soon. And while workers are negotiating with different local employers, the purpose of their conflict -- wages, benefits and what the union says is rising discomfort about the state of B.C.'s roads -- remains the same.

'Overworked, underpaid and dwindling'

The B.C. government cut highway maintenance funding by $30 million a year in 2002. Since then, according to the B.C. Government Employees' Union (BCGEU), the highways workforce has been cut in half. Remaining workers, meanwhile, have had to accept wage cuts of between six and eight per cent.

According to the BCGEU, the crews are now overworked, underpaid and dwindling in numbers. The province-wide union claims that members in some areas were called to work up to 300 overtime hours over the past winter.

The Ministry of Transportation, however, denies that funding is an issue. The road maintenance budget, they say, has actually gone up in recent years, from $299 million in 2000-2001 to $342-million in 2007-2008.

But that money hasn't trickled down to the workers, according to the Union.

Mainroad South Island Contracting, for example, recently offered their workers an increase of 0.27 per cent for 2007, something BCGEU president George Heyman called "an insult."

"The contractors seem to think they've come to the table to get more concessions than they achieved in the last round of bargaining, when these workers were told by the Campbell Liberal government that if they didn't save the government some money, they'd be out of a job," Heymans said. "The contractors have to realize we're in a different climate now."

In the North Okanagan, workers have been asking for a six percent increase per year over the next three years. Their employer, Argo Road Maintenance, says they are waiting for an independent cost of living analysis before settling. Indeed, while many negotiations have occurred across the province, there have been no recent settlements.

Private workers, public union

According to the Transportation Ministry's Jeff Knight, that's not the government's responsibility. "We are not directly involved with the wages of the employees," Knight said.

While the highway workers are in the public union, they have, since the Social Credit government privatized highway maintenance in 1988, worked for individual contractors, such as Argo. The government awards maintenance contracts to Argo and others every 10 years. The contractors then negotiate wages with the union.

"The current 10-year contracts have all been awarded in the last few years," Knight says, adding that there are no plans to renegotiate anytime soon.

For contractors who were recently awarded contracts, like Argo Road Maintenance, the negotiation can be tricky. "We weren't in operation in 2002," when the government cut funding said Les Townsend, Argo's road maintenance manager. "We inherited this contract in 2004, so we didn't negotiate the previous agreement."

To deal with the growing situation, the Labour Relations Board asked mediator Vince Ready to help the parties reach an agreement. Ready hadn't called The Tyee back at the time of the publication.

Roads deteriorating?

According to the BCGEU, the problem is with the now 20-year-old privatization. Not only are wages stagnant, they say, but the quality of the roads has deteriorated too. As proof, they say complaints about road maintenance have skyrocketed.

"Highways contractors are now in an untenable position," said Mike Nuyens, chair of BCGEU's Operational Services. "They now get to regulate themselves. With one eye on the bottom line, they decide if a road is safe, and decide if and when repair work gets done."

But that's just not true, according to the government. "The ministry has managers who monitor the roads in each of the contract areas to meet the standards," said Knight. "In cases where possible issues are monitored, there will be a follow up with the contractors to ensure that they act on it."

What's more, the ministry denies that the public thinks the roads are deteriorating. "There hasn't been any change in the amount of complaints throughout the years," Knight said. "It stayed consistent."

Growing strife

The problem, though, is growing. Last Friday, 82 Kootenay Boundary region highway workers endorsed strike actions and might soon join the growing movement.

Despite the strike, essential services remain. "They are required to provide essential services as designated by the Labour Relations Board," said Les Townsend.

There are about 2000 highway workers across the province. Half of them are full time employees and half of them are auxiliary workers, according to BCGEU. The Lower Mainland area, where municipalities are in charge of road maintenance, won't be affected.

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