BCGEU reaches tentative agreement with province after weeks-long strike

Members of the British Columbia General Employees' Union picket outside a Liquor Distribution Branch facility in Delta, B.C., on Aug. 15.  (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Members of the British Columbia General Employees' Union picket outside a Liquor Distribution Branch facility in Delta, B.C., on Aug. 15. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The largest union in B.C. said it has reached a new, tentative contract agreement with the province after seven months of negotiations and a two-week strike by public-service workers.

A statement from the B.C. General Employees Union (BCGEU) confirmed Wednesday an agreement was reached after nine straight days of bargaining with the B.C. Public Service Agency.

"Bargaining is never easy, and this has been a long and challenging round," said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith. "I'm proud of the work our committee has done."

The BCGEU posted a list of what it described as "highlights" from the new three-year agreement, including general wage increases and other temporary or one-time payments.

The wage hike was outlined as follows:

  • 3.24 per cent increase in the first year, plus 25 cents per hour.

  • 5.5-6.75 per cent increase in the second year, "based on inflation."

  • 2-3 per cent increase in the third year, "based on inflation."

The union said it hasn't yet set a voting date to ratify the agreement, which covers 33,000 public service workers. The union, which has 86,000 members in total, had cited workload and staffing as key problems when its public service members voted to strike in June.

Employees at four liquor and cannabis distribution centres walked off the job for two weeks in August during the strike. The action halted the flow of alcohol and cannabis to government-run stores, leading to limits on alcohol purchases for individuals and serious supply issues for private liquor and cannabis stores.

Workers later refused to work overtime.

'Public sector workers face real wage cuts'

University of Toronto assistant economics professor Rob Gillezeau said the BCGEU deal is significant because the union usually sets the standard for subsequent public sector labour agreements.

Collective bargaining in British Columbia is carried out by the Public Sector Employers' Council, which is responsible for the strategic co-ordination of labour relations, total compensation planning and human resource management across the broader public sector.

Gillezeau served as chief economist for the federal NDP when the party was the Official Opposition and worked as a senior aide to the provincial Ministry of Finance in Victoria from 2017 to 2019.

Based on the initial numbers, he said he believes that while the BCGEU deal may result in a significant increase in pay in the next three years, workers won't see any real-world increases.

"Headline numbers you'll see are higher in most recent agreements, but it is still very likely the case that over the three years of this agreement, public sector workers face real wage cuts," Gillezeau said.

"The dollar you get on your paycheque might increase, but that is unlikely to keep up with inflationary pressures in the economy."

On the other hand, Gillezeau said the increase of more than five per cent in the second year of the agreement is the highest seen in decades for a public sector union and was likely to be seen as a major win for the BCGEU.

He said the fine details of the deal may also provide other benefits to union members, including language around staffing levels and working from home, which have been issues for many employees coming out of the pandemic.

Gillezeau said the union went into negotiations with a strong hand in terms of both overall public support for front-line workers and the province's financial fortunes.

"It looks like B.C. is back in the black, the fiscal picture is good, and that's going to influence what bargaining looks like," he said.

"Workers in their position at the bargaining table, they know that government has the resources to reach an equitable agreement."

The economist stressed that the agreement is still tentative and has to be ratified by the BCGEU rank and file.