Government employee’s union goes on “one day” strike

Yesterday, over 27,000 workers in the BC Government and Service Employee’s Union went on strike; the largest job action the Union has taken in over 20 years.

The one day long strike is part of the escalating action the BCGEU has participated in over the last few months, including the one-day strike of workers at three liquor distribution centres in July.

The BCGEU has around 65,000 members, which include social workers, BC Liquor Store employees, Ministry of Children and Family Development employees, and forest fire fighters.

The BCGEU has decided on a one day strike action after experiencing stagnant wages that haven’t increased since April 2009, says Evan Stewart, the union’s Communications Officer. Stewart says the current salaries lag far behind inflation, a range he estimates at five to five-and-a-half percent.

One day might seem like a short amount of time for a list of demands that include a 3.5 per cent wage increase in the first year, a demand that BC Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid has already publicly opposed.

Stewart says that the primary goal of the current action is to raise awareness, though they will push on if necessary. “If the government doesn’t come back to the table and if we can’t have some meaningful negotiations, there’s every likelihood that we will dial-up our job action,” he says.

The reasons for keeping the action low-key are slightly more complex than they may appear, however.

Paul Houle is on the executive committee of BCGEU Local 603, as well as being a child protection social worker. As a rank-and-file union member, his understanding is that the BCGEU has some financial constraints limiting how far they can escalate the strike. The Union has around 70 million dollars in the strike fund, but Houle says this is not as large a sum as it may appear.  “With the size of the civil service, and with people being on the picket line, and receiving strike pay, we would go through that money fairly quickly.” He estimates that the funds could be used up in a period of around three weeks.

Houle also says that the one-day action has been decided upon to maintain strong public support, by showing the public that they’re “trying to protect services for vulnerable populations.” According to Houle, the action is not just about wages. “It’s also about the wise use of taxpayers money, and spending money in a way that’s socially responsible.” As an example, he points to the Ministry of Children and Family Services’ new $200 million Integrated Case Management System, a computer system which has been broadly criticized for its unsuitability in a social work context.

At the same time, with the recent struggles of the BCTF, the government backlash against striking workers may be a factor in limiting the action, Houle says. Specifically, many fields represented by the BCGEU have been designated essential services, which effectively takes away their ability to stage a full-fledged strike.

“Basically every last child protection worker that’s doing frontline child protection has been deemed essential,” Houle says. He feels that there is a way around this without compromising the ability of the Ministry of Children and Family Services to maintain its most crucial work. In the 1988 strike, Houle recalls, the managers took on the essential services. This time around, “I didn’t see [union] excluded managers really deployed in any significant way.”

“I don’t think it was necessary to have this level of people have work to maintain essential services,” Houle says. As evidence, he points to vacant positions in the Ministry. “Make up your mind. If you’re saying that we’re all essential, why are you leaving so many positions that you’ve already deemed essential empty?”

Even adoption workers have been designated essential, something which Houle does not think is necessary. “Hopefully we can have parents adopt children as soon as we can, but if there’s a strike for two weeks, if that has to wait a couple weeks, that is not a life or death matter.”

Houle feels there is a danger in going overboard. “With neoliberal governments, as we saw in the state of Wisconsin, often the next step is to completely abolish the teachers union and the public services union. That is the ultimate in declaring somebody ‘essential services’: completely removing their ability to take job action.” In the context of BC, Houle says “We’re kind of halfway here, the definition of essential services is very broad.”

Image credit Flickr user wader.