Martyn Brown: Attention civil servants—strikes not the only way to boost wages. Why not leverage NDP leadership race?

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      Good news: Canada’s inflation rate has dropped a bit. The Consumer Price Index fell from 8.1 percent in June to 7.6 percent in July on a year-over-year basis.

      Bad news: the CPI also rose last month in British Columbia from 7.9 percent to 8.0 percent—the only province in Canada where inflation actually increased on that same basis.

      And food prices skyrocketed by 9.9 percent in Canada in July from the same month last year, also up from the 9.4 percent year-over-year basis in June.

      The CPI common—a measure of core inflation that tracks common price changes across categories in the CPI basket—also went up nationwide. From 5.3 percent in June to 5.5 percent in July, as compared to 2.6 percent in July 2021.

      The Bank of Canada says it is actually the best specific gauge of the economy's performance.

      No sweat, Premier Horgan’s NDP cabinet might say.

      They won’t feel that same pinch.

      All of those cabinet ministers just voted themselves a retroactive 10 percent pay hike on the ministerial portion of their salaries. On top of the automatic inflation adjustments all M.L.A.s will get to their salaries.

      For Horgan, doing away with that former cabinet salary hold-back will give him a salary lift of $10,000 each year, not including the general MLA wage bump.

      For his ministers, it amounts to a $5,600 annual salary windfall.

      As compared to the $2,500 one-time signing bonus that the NDP is offering the BCGEU and presumably other public servants, to accept new collective agreements that won’t come close to covering inflationary costs.

      Indeed, Horgan wants B.C.’s nearly 400,000 unionized public-sector employees to know this, whether they’re working for the provincial government, for public-sector boards, facilities and agencies, or for Crown corporations.

      It won’t be giving them a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) akin to the one that he and all MLAs will be getting.

      It’s a nonstarter for his government at any bargaining table.

      At an estimated cost of $310 million for every one percent increase in public-sector salaries, it’s just too expensive, the NDP is telling B.C.’s 33,000 public servants in the B.C. General Employees' Union.

      Never mind that only a couple of months ago, legendary special mediator Vince Ready concluded that a COLA component was entirely warranted in settling the 136-day Sea to Sky labour conflict. The longest-ever transit dispute in B.C. history.

      It involved a private contractor, PW Transit Canada, which provides bus services to government-owned B.C. Transit, and Unifor Local 114, a bargaining unit that represents some 90 drivers, cleaners, and technicians.

      Some observers might have reasonably expected that mediated settlement’s COLA component to serve as a model for new public-sector wage and benefit agreements in avoiding strike action.

      Nope. The government is offering the BCGEU a cumulative wage hike of about 11 percent over three years: less than half of today’s annual inflation rate.

      Meanwhile, the BCGEU is seeking a two-year deal with increases of five percent or inflation—whichever is higher.

      It’s a position that presumed NDP leader and premier-select David Eby opposes, having still been in cabinet when the government approved its last two wage offers.

      But not new longshot NDP leadership hopeful Anjali Appadurai.

      As I discussed in my last article, she’s standing solidly with the BCGEU.

      Forecasts don't always come true

      The Bank of Canada now expects inflation to average 7.2 percent in 2022, before falling to about 3 percent by the end of next year, and further still, to 2 percent by the end of 2024.

      Don’t bank on it.

      Only last April it was forecasting an inflation rate of 5.3 percent.

      A year ago, it was telling us inflation would fall from roughly three percent then to two percent by the end of this year.

      Now Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem is urging employers not to build inflationary adjustments into workers’ wages.

      “Don’t build that into longer term contracts. Don’t build that into wage contracts. It is going to take some time, but you can be confident that inflation will come down,” he recently told business leaders, much to the chagrin of Canada’s union leaders.

      Methinks them’s fightin’ words.

      But if the NDP really believes inflation is bound to drop, it shouldn’t have too much problem with the BCGEU’s demand for a COLA guarantee that protects its members from a de facto salary cut this year and next. Right?

      Meanwhile, Statistics Canada reports that in British Columbia, the average wage for nonunionized permanent employees increased by 6.63 percent from July 2021 to July 2022, as compared to only 3.07 percent for those covered by union agreements.

      So much for the myth that union wage hikes are always greater than those in the nonunionized private sector.

      The government’s own history of BCGEU wage increases shows how minuscule its salary hikes were over the last two decades, as they also were for nurses, teachers, and the entire public sector.

      For all that time they’ve been asked to suck it up and keep their wage demands in check. Now, they’re being asked to accept wage hikes that might amount to a salary cut, net of inflation.

      Also noteworthy is that the BCGEU has been one of B.C.’s least militant unions—especially when the NDP has been in power.

      It has only resorted to strike action twice in the last 40 years: the last time, in 2012, with limited job action against Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberal government; and eons before that, in 1983, as participants in the general strike against Bill Bennett’s Social Credit government. 

      After the media’s initial coverage of the BCGEU’s first phase of strike action, I can’t imagine that president Stephanie Smith is very happy.

      Least of all, with this story [Global News Hour at 6 BC: Aug 15, starting at 7:56 marker].

      Predictably, Global News was quick to convey that the BCGEU’s picketing of four B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch wholesale and distribution centres isn’t going over well with restaurants, bars, and pubs.

      They’re all being caught in the crossfire of that labour dispute, as they struggle to recover from their COVID-related losses.

      That’s because all of those businesses can only legally purchase their liquor for resale through the LDB, apart from the wines and craft beers that they can purchase directly from local wineries and breweries.

      It’s a curious first target for the BCGEU to choose in building public sympathy for its collective bargaining position.

      Sure, picketing those distribution centres might put a dent in the government’s LDB revenues, projected at $1.16 billion this year.

      But I doubt that outgoing Premier Horgan much cares.

      Especially since so few taxpayers these days seem to give a hoot about the size of any deficit, including his government’s budgeted deficit of $5.46 billion for this year.

      Targeting the Liquor Distribution Branch was always bound to generate lots of negative news.

      It might also lead the B.C. Liberals to campaign on a promise to privatize the LDB so as to prevent any such future collateral damage to the hospitality industry.

      Not sure how that helps the BCGEU’s cause.

      If it escalates its strike action to include government liquor and cannabis stores, it could really fuel public anger that might strengthen Kevin Falcon’s penchant for privatization.

      Just saying. It wouldn’t have been my opening move for job action, if I were in Smith’s shoes.

      Regardless, whatever the political challenges inherent in that action, the BCGEU sure wasn’t helped by its union brothers and sisters in the Hospital Employees' Union. That’s the B.C. health-services division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

      Baldrey contrasts BCGEU and HEU positions

      In that same Global News story, Keith Baldrey weighed in to frame the BCGEU’s job action in most unflattering terms.

      “Soon as the BCGEU served strike notice on Friday, the Hospital Employees' Union sent a memo to its own members,” he noted, “saying, we’re achieving strong momentum in our talks. We’ve achieved agreement in a half-a-dozen areas. And really, tackling the areas that the BCGEU has rejected.”

      Baldrey then read out this quote he also posted on-screen from that memo:

      “Our multi-union committee is also engaged in active and productive discussions with the employer on inflation-fighting wage increases, improvements to various premiums and allowances, and addressing the impact of historic wage cuts on health care workers.”

      It’s a message the HEU reiterated in a new release:

      “Over the last few months, HEU’s facilities bargaining committee has reached significant agreements with health employers on a range of issues that will help us address the staffing crisis causing huge stress and burnout in our hospitals and care homes.

      “However, the facilities bargaining committee decided on Friday to pause negotiations to show their support to BCGEU members who will be engaged in job action starting today,” the union said.

      Solidarity forever. Or at least for now, if we must, seems to be its grudging message.

      Baldrey continued, the HEU “basically said we’re going to have to pause our talks now because the BCGEU is taking job action.”

      Damn them, anyway, is what I heard as his unspoken subtext.

      “I’ll tell you, what’s in front of the HEU is not literally that different from what’s in front of the BCGEU,” he proclaimed. “So, the HEU is characterizing what they’re seeing as very productive and strong momentum, and they like what they see there.

      “So, it’s going to be interesting whether this solidarity can continue in the weeks ahead. I have a feeling that a $2,500 signing bonus for generally lower-paid HEU workers in B.C. might be looked upon a little more favourably.” Hint, hint.

      “So here you have a union saying we were making progress with pretty well the same talks, at the same time as the BCGEU is saying that’s not good enough and we’re going to go on strike.”

      Yikes. No doubt there which union is wearing the black hats, in Baldrey’s framing of the issue.

      Former attorney general David Eby's worst-case scenario involves thousands of public-sector workers signing up as B.C. NDP members before September 4.

      Solidarity takes many forms

      The Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer also hit on the same point, in a column largely discussing Appadurai’s declaration of solidarity with the BCGEU. He also referenced the quote Baldrey cited from the health union’s secretary-business manager, Meena Brisard.

      As Palmer put it, “The Facilities Bargaining Association, representing more than 60,000 workers in a wide range of health care facilities, paused its negotiations this week in a show of support for striking BCGEU members.

      “But there was no overlooking the tone of disappointment in the announcement on behalf of the association’s bargaining committee. It referred to there having been ‘strong bargaining momentum at the bargaining table.’ "

      “ ’The bargaining committee has secured agreements with the employer in areas including employee-initiated rotation and schedule changes, work from home arrangements, a more comprehensive complaints investigation process, and improvements to maternity and parental leave,’ continued the statement,” Palmer reported.

      Good for them, I’m sure most taxpayers would agree. Sounds encouraging.

      Though the HEU’s half-hearted gesture of “solidarity” seems to have mostly succeeded in optically hanging the BCGEU out to dry.

      It makes me wonder what we should expect from the other public-sector unions in weeks and months to come.

      Today (Aug. 16), the B.C. Teachers' Federation announced that its provincial bargaining team has returned to the bargaining table for meetings scheduled this week.

      It noted that “the funding government has made available falls far short of what is required to address the needs of our members … Whether the employer comes with sufficient funds and a willingness to bargain important issues like salary and workload will inform how the rest of the week proceeds.”

      It will hold a Special Representative Assembly on August 22 “to ensure Local Presidents and Local Representatives get the opportunity to discuss and debate next steps and an action plan to educate, engage, and organize members to apply pressure to government and the employer.”

      Note, that’s almost two weeks before the September 4 cut-off for new NDP members to be eligible to vote in that party’s leadership contest.

      Meanwhile, back in January, the B.C. Nurses Union announced that it had decided to postpone its provincial bargaining conference to this fall, “Based on the unprecedented transmissibility of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and the devastating impact it is having on staffing levels across the province.”

      Not that the fall is looking any better on the COVID front, as the next wave continues its carnage under the NDP’s mask-free mismanagement of the killer virus.

      That conference is now scheduled to take place October 3 to 5, 2022 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

      Which also happens to coincide with the October 4 candidate nomination deadline for anyone entering the NDP leadership race to file their completed nomination packages.

      Why is this potentially important?

      I would suggest that all unionized public-sector workers would be wise to think about how they might leverage that leadership contest to their own advantage at the bargaining table.

      B.C. NDP Anjali Appadurai is seeking the support of BCGEU members by calling for a substantial hike in their pay.
      Joy Gyamfi

      Buying memberships could pay dividends

      In discussing Appadurai’s leadership bid, Palmer concluded that “short of an astonishing upset in the leadership race, it is hard to envision a scenario where the cabinet would come back to the table with a greatly enriched fourth offer.”

      With respect, I think he’s dead wrong on that point.

      That leadership campaign offers every union member with a stake at any bargaining table a truly remarkable additional alternative to strike action in pressuring the NDP government to rethink its un-COLA stance and to advance their union’s other priorities.

      It especially affords those workers covered by essential-service restrictions—the ones who can’t legally exercise their right to strike—a rare opportunity to use their strength in numbers to greater advantage.

      It’s all well and good to do as the BCGEU and HEU suggest, and email your MLA or “support a picket line near you” in your off-work hours.

      But let me tell you, those emails will be readily discounted, if read at all.

      Nor will the government much care how many handfuls of people might be at any given picket line.

      Least of all as it has been politically comforted by public proclamations of progress at the bargaining table from the likes of the HEU.

      By the same token, if thousands of union members joined the NDP before the September 4 voter-eligibility cut-off, it would utterly freak out Horgan, Eby, and the 48 of 55 other NDP MLAs who support him.

      And here’s the thing: that tactic doesn’t even demand that any of those new members must necessarily support Appadurai’s leadership campaign.

      Sure, joining the NDP involves paying a $10 membership fee.

      But I suggest it’s a small price to pay for potentially putting the fear of God in the NDP government, if its reported 11,000-member party looks in danger of being swamped by a raft of new members who were not signed up by Eby’s campaign.

      The success of that pressure tactic also would not ride on who actually wins the NDP leadership and becomes B.C.’s next premier. Which Eby assuredly will as things stand.

      Indeed, those public-sector employees joining the NDP before the Septembeer 4 voter eligibility deadline would not even have to cast a ballot, if they didn’t want to.

      The very fact of a sudden surge in membership that could only be reasonably attributable to motivated public-sector employees, disaffected climate activists, and others who openly support Appadurai’s effort would be cause enough for alarm in the NDP caucus.

      Whether or not she ultimately stands a chance of beating Eby on December 3, what matters is the prospect that she might, if those new members are determined to choose a premier who supports their cause.

      What if she wins, by some miracle, many of Horgan’s minions would start to worry, knowing they’ve already publicly backed the favoured establishment horse?

      All hell would break lose in the government caucus if it looked like that was even mathematically possible, driven by a substantial NDP membership growth.

      Note as well that the voting in that leadership election doesn’t even start until November and it runs through until the ballots are counted, on December 3.

      Imagine how nervous the government would get if it knew that the eligible voting membership had doubled over the next few weeks, without a clue as to how many of those new members will actually ultimately cast their lot with Appadurai as their ostensible cost-be-damned champion.

      Oh, but you know nothing about her or what she stands for, you might say, other than what’s already been reported.

      Such as here in the Straight, or here, here, here and here.

      Fair enough. Then again, consider this.

      It’s easy as pie to join the NDP. Just fill out this form on its website.

      But in doing so, you’ll want to pay close attention to this caveat printed in fine print at the bottom.

      By submitting this form you are agreeing to the following statement: I am not a member nor supporter of any other political party. I declare that I accept and will abide by the Constitution, principles, and policies of the NDP of B.C. and of Canada.

      The B.C. NDP website doesn't make it easy to find the party's constitution that members are required to follow if they want to vote in the leadership race.

      Constitutional follies

      Trouble is, nowhere on the NDP website will you find a copy of either the party’s Constitution, its principles or its policies.

      The NDP seems very keen on keeping that information hidden from those same new members it is courting on the condition that they agree to those invisible documents.

      Perhaps the B.C. NDP Constitution is the same as the party’s federal Constitution.

      But unlike the provincial NDP arms in Ontario, Manitoba, and P.E.I., which all posted their constitutions, I couldn’t find the B.C. NDP Constitution anywhere on the Internet.

      Nor will you be able to find on the B.C. NDP website whether your particular union is among those formally affiliated with that party—which most public-sector unions are clearly not.

      That information, too, is apparently a secret.

      As the NDP Socialist Caucus reminds us, the party’s establishment isn’t too keen on insurgent initiatives that threaten its business-as-usual comfort threshold.

      And Appadurai scares the bejesus of out them, you can count on that.

      If you interested in a good primer on organized labour and the NDP, I’d highly recommend you read this paper from Brock University labour studies professor and chair Larry Savage.

      He also posted this interesting April 2021 twitter thread.

      It illuminates a recent amendment to the federal NDP Constitution that convention delegates adopted on labour affiliation and convention delegate entitlement.

      What’s important now for the unions’ delegate voting power is not their numbers of NDP members, but rather, their union membership numbers. It now determines how many voting delegates they are entitled to at NDP conventions, probably here in B.C. as well.

      Luckily, this B.C. NDP leadership election won’t be a delegate-controlled affair, as in days of old. All members will have one vote, with no regional weighting.

      In short, if enough public-sector union members decided they really wanted to shake things up and strengthen their hand at the bargaining table, they could, any strike action aside.

      All they have to do is join the NDP before September 4 and at least plausibly stand to threaten to rock David Eby’s sure-bet status.

      Fat chance, I know.

      Sometimes “organized labour” wants for lack of organization and in-house leaders who have the guts to make a go of every tool in their collective-bargaining arsenal.

      I’m not holding my breath that anyone out there will grab this wild bull by the horns and ride it for everything it’s potentially worth to all BCGEU members and to their unionized brothers and sisters in arms.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at