Questions surround wage raises under B.C. mandate

Public-sector workers getting raises; it’s hard to say where savings are coming from: Critics

Public-sector employees in British Columbia can get raises this year, as long as cost savings can be found to cover the increases.

At least that’s how the province’s new collective bargaining mandate is supposed to work. Critics say it’s hard to determine whether this is actually the case.

The new practice is a move from the government’s last collective bargaining mandate, called net zero. Under the former mandate, negotiators could move money from one part of a union’s collective agreement to another. Any increases in one area of the compensation package had to be offset by other parts, according to a backgrounder from the B.C. government.

“Under net zero, there were no net increases in compensation,” the statement said. Net zero was in place from 2010 to 2012.

The co-operative gains mandate, instituted in 2012, means cost savings can be found outside the collective agreement and put towards compensation increases.

“The key feature of the Co-operative Gains Mandate is that it provides public sector employers with the ability to negotiate modest wage increases through productivity gains or through savings within existing budgets, resulting in actual increases in compensation,” the backgrounder states. “Any savings proposed by employers under the 2012 Co-operative Gains Mandate must undergo a savings review process performed by the Ministry of Finance.”

But while many contracts have been reconciled under the new mandate — more than one-third of collective agreements have been ratified, according to the government’s statistics — hardly any information is available on where the money for wage and benefit increases has come from, according to some.

“There’s absolutely no transparency as to how and where those gains were realized in order to fund a collective bargaining agreement,” says Kenneth Thornicroft, a lawyer and professor of business law and employment relations at the University of Victoria.

“My take on it, which may be a very sort of cynical take on it, but my take on it is that the government basically allocated about in the neighbourhood of three and four per cent for wage increases over the course of a two-year collective bargaining agreement.”

There’s a very defined pattern to the collective agreements that have come out so far. In agreements that have been reached, almost all the wage increases are in the neighbourhood of three to four per cent, he said.

It seems like positional bargaining, said Thornicroft.

“It seems to me that this is really just a disguised mandate of ‘you can get up to four per cent.’”

There hasn’t been much information released to the public about what areas the gains are coming from. Media releases when a collective agreement is reached usually say very little, said Thornicroft.

“When you look at releases from the parties, they are sort of vague and unhelpful,” he said.

“They don’t say specifically where these efficiencies were found.”

The University of Victoria is subject to the mandate. An agreement has not yet been reached, but the university did propose a 1.5 per cent increase each year for two years.

“So far as I know there was no discussion on how that would be funded. I mean there was no discussion where (the university said) professors will agree to larger class sizes or they were going to agree to teach more classes, there was no discussion around that, to my knowledge,” he said.

The offer was just made and since the faculty turned it down the university is now in arbitration, said Thornicroft.

“But there was no discussion about how that three per cent would be funded.”

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s (CTF) view is that the previous collective agreement mandate of net zero was the best for B.C. at this time, according to Jordan Bateman, the B.C. director of the federation.

“We preferred net zero to co-operative gains,” he said. “While we support the principle of co-operative gains we do have a lot of questions about how it’s actually implemented and we don’t feel like we get really good accountability on the government’s end about what these gains really are.”

Unions have not been privy to what areas the savings are coming from, said Mark Hancock, B.C. secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

“Part of the problem with the savings plans is that I’m not sure any have been released to the unions, so we don’t exactly know what are in those savings plans,” said Hancock. “I mean there are some discussions at the table around it, but those are the employers’ responsibilities.”

In CUPE’s elementary and secondary education locals, the employer has said it hasn’t been able to find any savings so there will be zero per cent increases for those employees again unless the unions can cut from their contracts, he said.

“The only way for us to get wage increases is mining our own collective agreements,” said Hancock.

The CTF thinks the government should have done another two years of the net zero mandate since the province is stretched thin financially, said Bateman.

“The best way to reduce spending is to hold the line on labour costs,” he said.

CUPE has worked within the net zero and co-operative gains mandates over the last two bargaining cycles but would prefer a different style of bargaining, said Hancock.

“At some point there have to be real gains for workers,” he said. “What happened to fair collective bargaining where both sides go to the table and hammer out agreements?”

No one from the B.C. government was available to discuss the savings plans by press time.

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