British Columbia's public servants are looking to regain ground lost under wage freezes imposed more than two years ago, signalling that the provincial government will face stiffening resistance to its plans to cap public-sector wages as part of deficit reduction.
Workers represented by the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union haven't had a raise in three years and inflation has reduced their spending power by more than 5 per cent, said union president Darryl Walker.
That's why the union is seeking a cost-of-living allowance in its current negotiations with the government – to keep pace, Mr. Walker said.
Agreements with BCGEU have an impact beyond its own members because the deals set the tone for the rest of the public service – and most of the province's 300,000 public-sector workers will be negotiating a new contract in the coming months.
The union is asking for a 1-per-cent wage increase in each of two years, which, with the cost-of-living allowance, would total 8 per cent over two years at the current rate of inflation. The government has offered a 1.5-per-cent increase in each of the two years.
Mr. Walker announced Tuesday that 82 per cent of its members who voted favoured strike action. The strike vote was called in late March after contract talks broke down with the government.
The government's offer ends a pledge to freeze public-sector salaries into 2012 with the aim of balancing the provincial budget by 2013-14.
Public-sector employers can now negotiate modest wage increases, but those increases must be offset by increases in revenue other than user fees or cuts in areas other than services.
Mark Thompson, professor emeritus in industrial relations at the University of B.C.'s Sauder School of Business, said the union pushback is to be expected following a wage freeze.
"Coming after a freeze, which people accepted, then to say, 'Well, you've got to buy what you get,' in a sense, by giving it up someplace else – that is very hard to swallow," Prof. Thompson said.
Rather than freeze wages, the government could have imposed a cap on raises, limiting them so they are still below the rate of inflation, he suggested.
"That would have been another way to do it, but they wanted to show the hard line with the employees. There's a price to be paid for that, one way or another. You're going to get some pushback."
To pay for the increase, the BCGEU proposed money-saving and money-generating measures that it said would bring in $350-million, such as using sheriffs for road safety services rather than the RCMP and opening government liquor stores on Sundays.
The government rejected the ideas.
"I don't know that we ... were ever clearly given a reason why these revenues shouldn't be collected," Mr. Walker said.
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon would not comment publicly on specifics of the negotiations, but said such proposals sometimes don't yield the initially anticipated revenues when associated costs, such as overtime, are factored in.
Mr. Falcon said he hopes the parties will reach a negotiated settlement that reflects "the reality of the times that we're in."
"Look at what's happening in the rest of the world and in other jurisdictions," he said, pointing to California, which is preparing for thousands of government layoffs.
"British Columbia has avoided that because we have been disciplined in controlling government spending."
The parties will return to the bargaining table on May 23. The current contract expired on March 31.
The BCGEU's 25,000 members include those who work in hospital services, retail liquor store and warehouse operations, social work and government administrative and support services.