Bargaining in the shadow of the Olympics

Recession and spending for games leave cupboard bare
By Danielle Harder
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 03/19/2010

The B.C. government will table its 2010 budget two days after the close of the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, and the province is already promising it will be a tight one.

Despite predictions the B.C. economy will grow by 2.9 per cent this year, the economic turmoil of the last year and emerging overruns with the Games leave little money for unionized government workers whose current agreements are all set to expire this year, starting in March, says John Fryer, an adjunct professor in public administration at the University of Victoria and a former leader of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union.

In the last round of negotiations with public sector unions, the province offered signing bonuses plus dividend payouts to unions that agreed to long-term contracts with expiries starting in March 2010, after the close of the Olympics. Designed to avoid any labour unrest during the Games, the so-called “Olympic bonus” cost the B.C. government about $300 million. The bonus, per worker, averaged $3,000 to $4,000.

Fryer says the tactic “bought labour peace but it destroyed any strategic advantage for the unions.”

Although many of B.C.’s public sector unions consider the timing of the expiries to play to their advantage, he says there is no leverage to be gained.

“The national economy is in difficult shape, the provincial economy is recording a record budget deficit,” he says. “And the public is in no mood to give big raises to public sector workers when we’re still in a recession.”

He predicts zero per cent wage increases and little fight in the short term.

“I think you’re going to find a very docile round of negotiations as union after union rolls over and plays dead,” he says, “while claiming tremendous victories at the bargaining table on non-money issues.”

He says unions in B.C. will instead be looking for breakthroughs on job security and other contract language.

“It’s tiny little changes in language that might affect tiny little minority groups within bargaining groups,” he says. “But I don’t think there’s any mood among the membership, either, to strike. I think [they] get the public mood at present and the public mood is very negative to public employees.”

Fryer says unions “need to re-position themselves out of this position where they’re made to look greedy” — rightly or wrongly — and that will result in few, if any, labour disruptions this time around.

A new report by the Conference Board of Canada, Industrial Relations Outlook 2010: A Recovery Offering Little Relief, predicts much of the same across the country, as industry comes out from the shadow of economic uncertainty.

“Overall, employers will be focused on controlling costs and addressing long-term structural issues, while unions will be resisting employer demands for concessions,” said John Rankin, interim vice-president of leadership and HR research.

However, he says it’s unlikely unions will look for substantial across-the-board wage increases. Like Fryer, Rankin predicts unions will focus on language: protecting existing rights and benefits, and preventing contracting out and the increased use of temporary workers.

“Public sector employers will have little money available for new spending, including wage increases,” he says. “And in the private sector, negotiations will reflect the conditions of each industry. Until more evidence is available that the economic recovery is firmly entrenched, the bargaining climate will be difficult in the coming year.”

Public sector bargaining will dominate the bargaining calendar this year. More than 750,000 workers across the country are covered by agreements set to expire this year. Many of those contracts involve healthcare, retail, education, utilities and trades.

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