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BCGEU strikes deal with government for inflation-adjusted wages

After a two-week strike, 33,000 government workers from B.C.'s largest union will see possible raises in the range of 2% to 6.75% annually over the next three years.
BCGEU strike2
BCGEU strike at a liquor distribution warehouse.

The BC General Employees' Union (BCGEU) has reached a tentative agreement with the provincial government, meaning an end to further strike action unless workers reject ratification.

The key factor in negotiations was wage increases pegged to inflation; the union sought a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) clause, similar to what an MLA receives.

Without a contract since April 1, the union picketed government liquor distribution warehouses from Aug. 15 to Aug. 30, resulting in halted shipments of alcoholic and cannabis products to retailers and restaurants. The union leaders and BC Public Service Agency have negotiated since the start of the month.

The 33,000-plus workers cover a variety of public sector jobs. The workers are now expected to proceed to a vote to ratify a three-year deal; it commences retroactively on April 1, 2022 and ends April 1, 2024, according to a news release from the union Wednesday.

However, the proposed agreement runs the risk of workers not receiving a wage increase pegged exactly to inflation.

Should the union members ratify the agreement, they will see a 25 cents-per-hour increase plus a 3.24 per cent pay raise this year, retroactive to April 1, 2022. The 25 cents per hour equals an approximate increase of 0.76 per cent for the average BCGEU employee, thus making it a four per cent increase.

The 12-month average consumer price index (CPI) increase in B.C. in March 2021 was 3.7 per cent, putting workers slightly ahead this year. Lower-paid workers will be slightly ahead of higher wage earners.

Things get trickier for 2023 and 2024, as the agreement has fixed wage increases, based on Bank of Canada inflation projections.

Next year, according to the union’s agreement highlights, government would “increase rates of pay by the annualized average of B.C. CPI,” but with a specified 5.5 per cent to 6.75 per cent pay raise.

It’s yet to be seen what the CPI increase in March 2023 will be; while CPI reached eight per cent in July, a set of rapid rate hikes by the Bank of Canada is expected to push inflation rates down.

If the B.C. CPI falls below 5.5 per cent in March 2023, workers will come out ahead; if it rises above 6.7 per cent, workers fall behind.

Likewise, workers will then see a two per cent to three per cent pay raise in 2024, as the Bank of Canada projects inflation to become more controlled by then.

The government had initially offered a cumulative raise of close to 10 total percentage points over three years (4+3+3), plus a $2,500 bonus for full-time employees (pro-rated for part-timers). If inflation was higher than 9.5 per cent over three years, an additional one per cent increase would have been realized.

This agreement has no such bonus but the possibility of a roughly 14.7 total percentage points wage increase over three years. At a minimum, workers will get 11.5 percentage point increases, with the most frontloaded in April 2023.

There are also various pay grid upgrades for prison workers, court clerks, sheriffs, social program officers and child and mental health officers.

Court clerks, for example, will see, on average, a 10 per cent pay raise this year alone.

It’s unclear how many workers will see adjustments to pay grids.

Furthermore, a one-time subsidy of $4 per hour for a 16-week period retroactive to April 1, 2022 will apply to Liquor Distribution Branch employees. That’s $2,460 for a person working 40 hours per week.

Other benefits the union is touting include new language around flexible work arrangements, mental health supports and two days of cultural holidays for Indigenous employees.

“Agreement details will be available in the coming weeks when the ratification process for the union members and the employers is complete,” stated the Ministry of Finance.

Union president Stephanie Smith did not mention “COLA” or “inflation” in the BCGEU statement.

Speaking to Glacier Media Wednesday, Smith said the union conceded on agreeing to a “capped” COLA.

“Obviously, our preference would have been uncapped COLA, like the MLAs got,” said Smith.

However, said Smith, “the committee weighed the options of a long, protracted strike against the gains we made.”

She said workers were concerned about going into debt with further strike action.

“The question marks are what will happen in year two,” said Smith.

“None of us have a crystal ball. We know the Bank of Canada has been wrong before,” she quipped.

Smith said the union members must vote 50% plus one in order to ratify the agreement and it is unclear when that vote will take place.

“The 95% strike vote we got in June and actioned in August was our members’ response to an offer that showed their employer had not gotten the message. After almost two weeks of job action and nine consecutive days at the table, enough progress was made that the committee decided it was time to let our members see what’s on offer and have their say,” said Smith in her statement.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca

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