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If Strike Hits Cities, It'll Stink

Trash pick-up, festivals, Olympics prep and economy will suffer.

By Monte Paulsen 10 Jul 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback via e-mail, and invites you to participate in the online discussion happening below.

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'Key': Vancouver Mayor Sullivan.

The Lower Mainland is going to smell a whole lot worse this summer if 12,000 unionized workers -- including the men and women who collect the region's garbage -- strike the 14 municipalities that make up the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). Three-quarters of the region's municipal workers have voted to strike.

"As of noon today, I'd say there's a strong possibility we will strike," said Paul Faoro on Monday. Faoro is president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 15, which represents indoor workers at City of Vancouver and the parks board.

A strike notice could be issued as early as this evening, or as soon as the BC Labour Relations Board issues a decision about what city services will be deemed essential. Work would stop 72 hours after a strike notice is issued.

"This week is critical," Faoro said. "Things are either going to get done, or they are going to hit the wall."

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival, the Illumanares Lantern Procession and swimming pools are among the summer passions that could melt away in a general strike.

Construction on projects including the Canada Line, Olympic Village and Richmond Oval could also be delayed, thwarting VANOC's promises to deliver the 2010 Winter Games on time and on budget.

On the plus side, there would be no parking tickets this summer.

'Mayor Sullivan holds key'

Most municipal workers have operated without a contract since December 2006. They claim they are being pushed into a strike by Lower Mainland municipalities, particularly the City of Vancouver.

"Mayor Sullivan holds the key," Faoro said. "He just needs to bargain. We'll consider any proposal. All the mayor needs to do to avert a strike is to instruct bargainers to come to the table with a fair contract."

"We are working to try and avert any work stoppage on behalf of the taxpayers," wrote Sullivan spokesman David Hurford in an e-mail on Monday. "It is my understanding they are still bargaining this afternoon.

Faoro said there were no talks scheduled for Monday, and added that Sullivan had denied union requests to meet.

"Mayor Sullivan has not been present. He's leading us down the path of a strike through his absence," said City Councillor Raymond Louie, of the opposition Vision Vancouver party.

"Perhaps the mayor fails to understand the economic impact this will have on citizens and business." Louie said. "This is going to be very costly if we don't settle; costly both from a financial standpoint, as well as from a social standpoint."

Half a point?

If the municipalities' website is to be believed, this strike is about half a percentage point.

The Greater Vancouver Regional Labour Relations Bureau negotiates on behalf of member municipalities in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). The labour bureau did not reply to calls and e-mails requesting comment for this article.

Realtor and White Rock Councillor Stewart Peddemors, who chairs the bureau, has said that municipal employers paid too much in past, and now seek a minor correction. The labour bureau website explains that municipalities granted raises of 2.5 per cent per year for the past few years, while the actual cost of living increase in Greater Vancouver was closer to 2 percent.

Peddemors and the bureau note that workers in the City of Port Moody and civilian staff at Port Moody Police Board accepted a package last fall that is basically the same as the one now being offered. The bureau had hoped for a similar outcome in Delta last week, but municipal employees there rejected an offer that reportedly included a wage hike of three per cent per year. The Delta contract was the first vote among municipal workers in strike position, and stoked strike talk throughout the region.

Record raises for managers

Neither side will discuss the detail of negotiations, but union organizers in Vancouver said they are being asked for concessions on vacation time, wages for lower paid workers, job security and bumping rights. For example, the City of Vancouver reportedly wants to freeze the wages of the city's 150 building service workers.

Union organizers complain that freezing wages on the lowest-paid city workers is unfair during a period when top city managers have rewarded themselves with record raises. City Manager Judy Rogers earned $318,838 in 2006 -- $48,367 more than she earned in 2005, according to the city's 2006 Statement of Financial Information.

Other top Vancouver earners include community services manager Jacquie Forbes-Roberts ($199,032), Olympic operations manager Dave Rudberg ($196,119), legal services manager Francie Connell ($195,284), parks and recreation manager Susan Mundick ($190,428) and city engineer Tom Timm ($190,269).

Olympic timing

Beneath the shimmering illusion that this strike is about money lies the reality that this confrontation is compelled by the omnipresent force that is the 2010 Winter Games.

Led by the City of Vancouver, GVRD municipalities are insisting on a 39-month contract that would expire -- you guessed it -- in March 2010, right after the Olympics conclude.

The Labour Bureau denied any connection between the Olympics and its insistence on a 39-month contract: "The end of the contract term of March 31, 2010 aligns itself with key agreements covering more than 100,000 public sector employees in the province of British Columbia."

"We're not going to enter into a new collective bargaining process weeks after the closing ceremonies of the Olympics," Faoro said. "I'm not the brightest negotiator around but I certainly wouldn't want to do it two weeks after all the bills come in from the Olympics, when they're already projecting cost overruns."

CUPE sources have said the union is open to a longer term.

"We're open to negotiating," Faoro said, "but a 39-month term ain't on."

Whistleblower issue

Faoro also raised concerns about a delay in whistleblower legislation -- a law to protect municipal employees who help expose waste or wrongdoing in government.

"Our union has been asking for whistleblower protection for our members for over a year. City council passed a motion that said they should implement the policy by the end of last year. The negotiators for the city of Vancouver said they are not interested in issuing whistleblower protection. Why?" Faoro asked.

"Whistleblower protection protects taxpayers, too," he said. "With all the money flowing through Olympic capital projects right now, not having simple language like whistleblower protection is simply irresponsible."

A dry and smelly season

"The last thing we want to do is strike," Faoro stressed. "If in fact we serve 72 hours notice, and if in fact we pull everything, then pretty much all municipal services in the City of Vancouver, as well as the parks board, will be completely shut down."

Community centres, golf courses and outdoor pools would be shut down. Events such as the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, the Illuminares light festival in Trout Lake Park and the Powell Street Festival in Oppenheimer Park would find it difficult to operate without city support.

"None of that is covered by essential services," Faoro said.

Development permits, engineering, homeless housing outreach, parking enforcement and just about every other city hall service would likely be shut down as well, though managers would provide as much service as possible. City building inspectors spent months reviewing the wave of illegal demolitions and renovations that occurred during the last general strike.

"At the works yards, road construction, street repair, sanitation, the transfer station would be closed, the Burns Bog landfill would be closed as well," Faoro said.

Olympic construction

Water, sewer and electrical supply are essential to continued progress on complex construction projects such as the Canada Line (RAV line), the Olympic Village development, the Richmond Oval and other Olympic-related projects.

"I'm not going to comment directly on the RAV line or the Olympic Village. All I'm going to say is that we are aware of those projects," Faoro said.

Under B.C.'s Labour Relations Code, a union cannot go on strike before a designation has been made regarding services whose disruption could pose a threat to the health, safety, or welfare of citizens in the province. That decision is before a hearing that begins this morning on West Hastings Street.

"In the past we've only had a handful of essential service positions designated." Faoro said. "Those have been like a gas inspector on call for a gas leak, an environmental technician in case of a hazardous spill."

Will CUPE hang in?

What remains to be seen is how well -- and how long -- the autonomous CUPE locals hang together. For while the municipalities bargain as one, the union locals are free to make their own decision. Strike pay tops out at $250 a week, and so it will only take a few weeks before city workers will have to dip into savings to pay the rent.

Vancouver's CUPE locals appear to be on the most aggressive footing, facing off against senior city managers who appear emboldened by the pro-business council dominated by Mayor Sullivan and the Non-Partisan Alliance.

But Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan has reportedly said that if other cities are drawn into a general strike, they may decide to negotiate their own deals.

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