Inflation, 'adversarial culture' in B.C. labour relations landscape could lead to job action

Observers are warning bargaining underway in the public and private sectors could get contentious with skyrocketing inflation, pandemic stressors and a history of clashes between employers and unions in British Columbia.

Even an optimistic union president acknowledged strikes and other job action are on the table as most of the province’s 186 collective agreements in the public sector have already expired.

“We're going to see some really tough talks at bargaining tables in every industry -- public sector, private sector, every part of Canada – as workers try to catch up to the losses they've experienced because of inflation,” said economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work, Jim Stafford.

“We will see all kinds of ways that workers will try to put pressure on their employers and that will include protests, and that will include 'work to rule' or slowdown campaigns."

With the province’s healthcare system “teetering,” medical personnel from nurses to paramedics to technicians to doctors are negotiating government contracts in an atmosphere known for clashes. 

“I think the adversarial culture that we have with respect to labour relations in British Columbia is not helpful and it's not the fault of anyone, per se,” said UBC associate professor of employment and health, Christopher McLeod.

“Wages may help to a certain extent with issues around retention, but if the fundamental working conditions don't change you're going to continue to see that exit from the workforce.” 

In the private sector, rail workers have already carried out work stoppages in recent months and pro soccer players cancelled a match after refusing to play, while transit workers have gone on strike over wages and benefits.

In this climate, one of B.C.’s biggest unions representing financial workers in the private sector and social services personnel as well as an array of public sector staffers, held a vote late last month that saw a whopping 95 per cent of public service members in favour of strike action.

WOW��The votes are in and nearly 95% of BCGEU's public service members voted in favour of strike action, in their fight for a fair deal that includes #COLA! This is a big day for BC's labour movement.

— BCGEU (@bcgeu) June 22, 2022

“This was the biggest vote of its kind we've ever had in our union, and just the process of taking the strike vote did compel the employer to reach out to us,” said Stephanie Smith, president of the British Columbia General Employees Union.

“Of course our goal is always to get a collective agreement, it's not to go on strike but I think our members over the last two-and-half years during this pandemic have really learned their worth and they're now willing to take job action if necessary.” 

Government now has a difficult path to try and navigate.

The typical one or two per cent annual cost of living increase is unlikely to fly with workers facing inflation soaring more than 7 per cent, hitting to its highest level in nearly 40 years. The critical staffing shortages in healthcare, food service and virtually every other sector in the wake of the “Great Resignation” also mean the employees are in a strong bargaining position.

But for every one per cent wage increase the public sector negotiates for more than 350,000 workers whose contracts are being renewed, it costs an estimated $400 million to the province’s operating budget. Matching inflation would cost billions each year.

“The government is going to be constrained somewhat in terms of their ability to move in a substantial way,” said McLeod. “So I do think that the bargaining is going to be contentious over the next while."