The president of B.C.'s largest public sector union says the deal reached to end the Sea-to-Sky transit workers' strike is a promising sign for the inclusion of cost of living arrangements in future employment contracts.
Earlier this week, Unifor — the union representing striking Sea-to-Sky bus drivers and related workers in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton — and employer PW Transit reached a deal that ended the longest transit strike in B.C. history.
The deal calls for a pay raise of 13.5 per cent over five years plus a signing bonus, as well as a cost of living adjustment that will see workers paid a top-up if growing costs of living exceed the workers' pay raises.
Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. General Employees' Union (BCGEU) — which represents over 30,000 public sector employees including nurses, firefighters and corrections staff — says the deal is "promising" for the workers she represents.
"Our members in the public service and within other collective agreements within the public sector told us that they need to see cost of living adjustments and inflation protections for them to ratify an agreement."
The cost of living continues to rise at the fastest pace in decades. Canada's official inflation rate rose at a 6.8 per cent annual pace in April, a new 31-year high.
Mark Thompson, professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, says cost of living adjustments are common in times of rising inflation.
"The public sector employers historically have been very reluctant to sign onto these these cost of living arrangements, but they may not have any choice," he said.
He says adjustments only kicks in if inflation continues to rise, protecting both employees and the employer.
Thompson says the provincial government's reticence to add cost of living arrangements — known as COLAs — is likely because they are working with budget allocations that didn't take into account the current rise in inflation.
"Even as recently as last fall, the central bank was saying, 'Oh, it's transitory, it's not going to last,'" he said. "I'd be very surprised if we didn't have fairly high inflation for the rest of the year."
Absence of COLAs amount to wage cut: union president
The BCGEU reached an impasse in its contract negotiations with the province in April, largely over a gap in wage proposals.
"The wage offer that was put before us by the employer was, quite frankly, not even in the ballpark of addressing rising cost of living or any inflation protections," explained Smith.
She says a new contract without a COLA would amount to a wage cut for employees, many of whom work in sectors that were hard hit by the pandemic, such as health care.
"They kept the lights on and the wheels moving and provided those incredibly important services that people who live in British Columbia relied on," she said.
Both Smith and Thompson say the labour shortage is another pressure point for employers to consider COLAs.
"The unemployment rate is quite low and people are leaving the nursing and health-care professions burnt out," said Thompson.