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B.C. public-service union plans more walkouts

Striking B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union worker wave at passing vehicles at the liquor distribution branch on East Broadway in Vancouver July 3, 2012. Workers waged strikes at three British Columbia government Liquor Distribution Branch facilities in Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops after new contract negotiations between the union and the provincial government hit a stalemate.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Union members of the public service are gearing up for renewed job action in their simmering labour dispute with the government.

Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, said there would be some walkouts before the end of July, and further rotating strikes next month.

While Mr. Walker would not specify exactly when the job action would take place, he indicated it would involve fewer members but more sites than the one-day walkout by more than 500 workers at the province's three liquor distribution centres earlier this month.

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"Our message is that we want a collective agreement, and we want to go back to the bargaining table," the union president said Wednesday. "We don't think we're unreasonable in what we're asking for, and we think the public understands that."

As the union prepared its next move, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon was raising the stakes.

The government's previous offer of a 3.5-per-cent increase over two years to its 25,000 employees has now been withdrawn, Mr. Falcon confirmed, because of the BCGEU's one-day strike.

He stressed there is no wiggle room in the government's bargaining position, unless the union identifies new ways to save money, adding that it is highly unlikely taxpayers would support an improved package.

"There is no public appetite for that," the minister declared hours after releasing a better-than-expected report on the province's finances. "Some are even confused that we offered 3.5 per cent. They think we're being too generous. People are telling me: 'What the hell are you giving them 3.5 for? I didn't get anything.' "

Asked whether the government would put its wage offer back on the table if the BCGEU returned to negotiations, Mr. Falcon replied: "It would depend how the conversation goes."

The Finance Minister said the union should consider that the next government offer could be for less money. He noted the price of natural gas has dropped significantly, cutting government revenues by a projected $200-million, while the world's economy continues to be uncertain. "That's a calculation they are really going to have to think very carefully about."

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Mr. Walker said he was neither surprised nor perturbed that the government has taken back its last contract proposal. "It's okay. You still have to get an agreement."

The union is asking for a 3.5-per-cent increase in the first year of a new, two-year agreement, followed by a cost-of-living adjustment in the second year.

Mr. Walker said union members are simply trying to make up for the two-year wage freeze in their previous contract. "We're just trying to maintain a situation where we don't fall further behind."

The union's planned job action is designed to protect government revenues, he said. "We don't want to touch that. We want to try and make sure the government gets all of the funds they want. In fact, we'd like to see revenues ramped up, not cut back."The BCGEU has expressed a willingness to staff government-owned liquor stores on Sundays to boost government income.

Mr. Walker pledged the union's rotating walkouts will have no impact on the many essential services members provide. "We don't want to hurt British Columbians, or put them in a position of jeopardy."

The BCGEU's main public-sector component has not had a strike since 1988.

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