Both sides made the most of their gains last week as British Columbia recovered from the largest labor shutdown in the province’s history—a 13-day strike by 80,000 public sector workers. Premier William Bennett dropped his combative stance, but he continued to emphasize that his government’s tough restraint program was still intact, despite the Nov. 13 deal that ended the strike. As well, the government is still planning to cut 10,000 jobs from its 40,000-member civil service.
In the end, the government agreed to take seniority into account when laying off and rehiring. Said Ray Haynes, the former president of the B.C. Federation of Labour: “Any time you take the government on and hold it to a draw, that is something.”
In return, the unions gave up a nolayoff guarantee for government employees with more than three years’service. But any workers facing a layoff now will be able to displace employees with less seniority within their own ministry. Yet groups concerned about changes in the labor code, new human rights legislation and social service cutbacks gained only vague promises.
The strike ended when the B.C. Government Employees’ Union (BCGEU) negotiated a new two-year contract after 20 days of intense bargaining. The government still plans mass layoffs, but many union activists included in the original firings will now have their jobs protected under the new rules. Teachers, like other public sector union members, will now be exempt from the
controversial Bill 3 restraint legislation. As well, the government said that $18 million saved in wages during the strike would go into the $2.3-billion provincial education budget—only on the condition that the teachers make up the three days they were on strike. That stipulation has angered teachers.
For its part, the BCGEU was satisfied with its new contract, even though it settled for a wage freeze in the first year and a four-per-cent raise in the second year. Still, the contract effectively destroyed two of Bennett’s most contentious bills. The BCGEU won an exemption from Bill 3, setting a precedent for other public sector unions. And Bill 2, aimed at limiting workers’ bargaining rights, was one of four bills not passed in the last legislative sitting and it is unlikely to reappear.
The BCGEU contract was the first step toward settling a chain of interlinked disputes. They ended when Jack Munro, regional president of the most powerful private sector union in British Columbia, the 50,000-member International Woodworkers of America, met with Bennett in his Kelowna home late on Sunday, Nov. 13. There, Bennett gave Munro coffee and a commitment to set up the consultative committees to discuss changes on social programs. They also agreed that neither side would overtly claim victory in »the dispute to avoid inflaming the issue again. Most British Columbians would agree, content for the moment to recover from the collision.
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