Negotiations stalled on civic-worker contracts

People who depend on civic services could be in for a long, hot summer of delays and frustrations. Municipal, library, and park employees across the region are without contracts, raising the possibility of job action.

On June 6, collective-bargaining negotiations between the Vancouver Public Library and the union representing its 790 workers broke down. Two days later, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 391 filed for mediation before the Labour Relations Board. Union president Alexandra Youngberg told the Georgia Straight that the possibility of a strike vote will be discussed at a future meeting.

Meanwhile, in Burnaby, the contract between the city and municipal employees represented by CUPE Local 23 expired last year. Bargaining started in September but progress has been slow, acting union president Jason Collins told the Straight . On June 12, workers registered a 93- percent vote in favour of granting the union a mandate to go on strike.

Elsewhere across the Lower Mainland, most civic workers represented by CUPE and other unions are working without new contracts. Several labour agreements expired in December 2006.

Anne Coupland, B.C. municipal coordinator for CUPE, told the Straight that negotiations have stalled because of employers' demands for benefit cuts and wage freezes. She also pointed out that bargaining in some jurisdictions like Coquitlam have not even started.

"There's dissatisfaction around the slow pace of bargaining," Coupland said. "I'm as mystified as the next person. Why would this be the time when the employers think they need to save? The municipalities are flush right now. Look at each municipality and there's construction galore."

Coupland said that "problems sort of have come to a head" earlier in the City of Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, and the Corporation of Delta.

Many of the municipal employers are represented at the bargaining table by the GVRD Labour Relations Bureau. According to bureau manager Malcolm Graham, it's the employers that define their respective bargaining positions, which are then followed by GVRD negotiators.

"The timetable unfolds as it goes," Graham told the Straight when asked if there are specific target-dates to wrap up negotiations. "It evolves."

On April 26, workers at Vancouver City Hall, the park board, Ray-Cam Cooperative Association, and Britannia Community Service Centre Society cast an overwhelming 93.5-percent vote in favour of a strike.

"Vancouver's inside civic workers are facing some of the most regressive take-aways and concessions, including a wage freeze for some of the lowest-paid workers, reductions in sick pay, banked time, vacation, and other benefit cuts," CUPE Local 15 stated in a news release.

A few weeks later, on May 16, 89 percent of Delta workers called for a strike vote that gave CUPE Local 454 the mandate to order a work stoppage. A news release issued by the union on the same day stated that its members are "facing regressive take-aways, including reductions in sick leave, benefits, and vacation".

On May 30, public employees of the North Vancouver District became the third group of civic workers to register a strike vote. District workers represented by CUPE Local 389 cast a 91-percent vote in favour of work stoppage. A union media release noted that the employer has demanded a $6-per-hour wage cut for seasonal workers and reductions to sick leave and other benefits.

On May 31, workers at North Vancouver's recreation commission voted 94 percent in favour of a strike. Many of these workers, according to a media statement issued by CUPE 389, don't have regular hours or benefits despite years of working for the commission.

Commencing on the day of the strike votes, civic workers in Vancouver, North Vancouver, and Delta are in a legal strike position for a period of three months. None of the unions has yet given their employers 72 hours' notice of a strike, which is required under the Labour Relations Code.

Jim Gorman represents CUPE library unions in the Lower Mainland. In an interview with the Straight , he said that a number of library boards want their employees to work more time on Sundays. "Increasing Sunday openings is a good thing, the public loves it, but they should be hiring more employees to work on Sundays and not force current employees to work," Gorman said. "A couple [of library boards] are asking for wage freezes for the lowest-paid people; they're called pages or bookshelvers. Another library is proposing that there'd be a lower rate of pay for pages."

CUPE Local 1004, which represents Vancouver city workers in charge of "outside" duties–like garbage collection and water, sewer, and road maintenance–was scheduled to hold a strike vote on May 31. But the union noted on its Web site that because of a B.C. Labour Relations Board order, the strike vote has been cancelled "until further notice".

Barry O'Neill, president of CUPE B.C., told the Straight that there's no reason why employers should deny public employees their share in the economic progress of the province.

"The economy is very good right now, by everyone's admission. It's not a common thing that we have so much problems in negotiations," O'Neill said.