BCGEU sheriffs have been recruited by police departments, leading to union calls for pay increases. (Black Press files)

B.C. public service union settlement first of many

Three-year deal with BCGEU includes 2% annual wage increases

Members of B.C.’s main public service union are preparing to vote on a three-year agreement, the first of a long series of contract talks facing the new NDP government.

The B.C. Government and Service Employees Union reached a tentative settlement this week for 26,500 public sector employees, including 4,200 employees of the Liquor Distribution Branch and 480 at the B.C. Pension Corp.

BCGEU president Stephanie Smith confirmed social media reports that the agreement includes a two per cent general wage increase in each of the three years, and targeted increases for some classifications that have had problems recruiting and keeping workers. The union has been outspoken about a shortage of sheriffs who work at provincial courthouses, and the chronic difficulty hiring and keeping child protection social workers.

Smith wouldn’t comment on the classifications getting extra money, except to say there were several and the union got agreements on “some, certainly not all.”

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The previous government bargained for public sector bonuses based on a share of economic growth that exceeded finance ministry forecasts at the start of each year. The NDP government calls its approach the “sustainable services negotiating mandate” and it did not include that in negotiations with the BCGEU.

“Our members just felt that it wasn’t transparent enough,” Smith said in an interview.

The tentative settlement comes well before the existing contract expires in March 2019, when more than 180 of the province’s union contracts are due to expire. There are more than 422,000 employees in the public service, health and community social services, K-12 and post-secondary education and Crown corporations and agencies, with 326,000 represented by unions.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation contract, a six-year agreement reached in 2014 after a bitter strike, also expires in 2019.

B.C. Liberal opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson said the first contract under an NDP government will be closely watched when the details are released following a ratification vote. He noted that the BCGEU has donated $2.7 million to the NDP since 2005.

“It’s no surprise that the NDP has been able to come to terms with one of its biggest political supporters, and the public deserves to know where their money is going and why,” Wilkinson said.

Smith said bargaining with the NDP government was as intense as ever, with late-night negotiation sessions.

“It was not easy, but certainly with a government that has a mandate of quality public services and accessibility for British Columbians, we had some shared ideals,” she said.

The Liquor Distribution Branch is preparing to play a part in recreational marijuana sales, where it will control wholesale distribution and run some of the retail stores in B.C.

“We do know that there will be a new warehouse, so that will be staffed up,” Smith said. “I have no idea what they’re looking at in terms of employee numbers.”

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