After nearly nine months of bargaining, including a three-week strike action, a new contract for the British Columbia Government Employees’ Union (BCGEU) has been ratified, much to the chagrin of many union members. The fine alchemists on the BCGEU leadership and bargaining team have managed to pull off no small feat of wizardry. With a wave of their wand, they managed to convert a 95 per cent strike vote in support of action to win a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) into a mere 53.4 per cent approval vote for the agreement they presented to the membership. Why is there so much dissatisfaction?
To answer that question, we should look at what exactly the agreement entails. According to the agreement, the general wage increases for BCGEU workers are as follows:
- Year 1 – a flat increase of $0.25/hour which provides a greater percentage increase for lower paid employees (for BCGEU workers, an average of 0.76 per cent) plus 3.24 per cent.
- Year 2 – a 5.5 per cent increase in pay plus a potential “cost-of-living adjustment” up to a maximum of 6.75 per cent.
- Year 3 – a two per cent increase in pay plus a potential “cost-of-living adjustment” up to a maximum of three per cent.
So, what’s the problem? Compared to the insulting offer of 5.5 per cent over three years we were initially offered by the government (an NDP government, one should recall), on paper the wage increases in the new agreement appear to be a great improvement. However, it is still an incredibly paltry sum when you consider the reason we voted to strike in the first place, which was inflation.
Inflation as of September is at 7.7 per cent. This means that this year alone we’re looking at a roughly four per cent reduction in pay. That is a far cry from the proper wage increase that we were hoping for and willing to fight for. Combine that with the fact that inflation has actually increased since August by 0.4 per cent, the hope that we will see an end to inflation soon, or that these negotiated “increases” may actually represent a real wage increase, flies out the window.
The Bank of Canada has urged employers not to grant wage increases due to inflation because it is confident that inflation rates will eventually start to come down. However, the so-called experts, including the Bank of Canada have been consistently wrong in terms of predictions about inflation. There is no guarantee that inflation will actually return to the normal level of two per cent by years two and three of the agreement, meaning that BCGEU workers could see effective wage cuts for the entirety of the contract. It’s no wonder then that nearly half the vote was against the proposed deal.
What happened to the initial demand for COLA? We wanted COLA so that we could win wage increases above inflation and get a real pay raise, the first in many years, as miniscule salary increases and inflation have continued to eat into our pay. However, what we have now doesn’t even match inflation, let alone overtake it. The demand for COLA is what we were mobilized to strike for and our leadership abandoned it in no short order.
Limited action, limited outcome
In the end, it is no surprise that the wage increases in the agreement negotiated by the bargaining team were rather small. This is because the strike action organized to get these wage increases was also very small. The strike began on Aug. 15 and we had picket lines set up until Aug. 30 before returning to the bargaining table. However, the only workers who were actually on the pickets were those at liquor and cannabis distribution centres. This meant that only around 1,000 workers were actually on strike.
Our bargaining unit represents 33,000 workers. This meant that only three per cent of the workers that could potentially be mobilized were actually on strike. Not only that, but the BCGEU as a whole represents 85,000 workers. Having only 1,000 workers on picket lines was in fact a criminal underutilisation of the strike mandate that was given to the leadership. Organizing strike action by all 33,000 workers in the bargaining unit would have put the union in a much stronger position at the negotiating table.
The organization of the strike by the BCGEU leadership was half-hearted at best. The sad fact is that the BCGEU leadership capitulated before even properly escalating strike action and before bringing out all 33,000 workers in the bargaining unit for strike action. Escalating strike actions also seemed to be the reverse of what should have happened. When strike action was finally escalated, it didn’t include bringing out more workers to picket lines, but was limited to an overtime ban of all BCGEU employees. An overtime ban should have been implemented before pickets went up, along with other work-to-rule measures.
Other public-sector unions were also negotiating contracts with the government at the same time, including the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) as well as the teachers’ and nurses’ unions. A major issue for the workers in these unions was inflation and winning COLA protection. Had the public-sector unions formed a common front and fought for common demands, they would have been in a very strong position to win COLA for the workers. This didn’t happen and as a result both the BCGEU and HEU capitulated on COLA demands.
There seems to have been no plan in place by the union leaderships to really escalate strike action and win COLA. Expanding the strike, bringing more workers to picket lines, and coordinating strike action by the public-sector unions was never really considered. Instead, the BCGEU and HEU leaderships retreated before the struggle even really began. Despite organizing the strike to win COLA, the BCGEU leadership caved at the first opportunity—when the B.C. NDP government offered a slightly less bad agreement compared to its initial offer.
The NDP is supposed to be the party of labour. The party should in fact be fighting for COLA for all workers. Instead, the B.C. NDP, presenting themselves as the most efficient managers of capitalism and firmly representing the interests of the bosses, refused to grant COLA agreements to public sector workers because it would be too expensive—this despite the B.C. NDP government posting a $1.3 billion surplus!
In an interview with Brett Mineer, BCGEU President Stephanie Smith, who it should be noted was also a member of the B.C. NDP provincial executive from 2019-2021, gave us a fine glimpse into exactly the kind of leadership that wins us the miserable deals we’re now stuck with.
When asked about the 53.4 per cent approval for the agreement, Smith admits that it does not represent the unity that the 95 per cent strike vote did. She says that the low approval vote for the agreement “is a message—and it is a message that there is a lot of work still to be done.”
Only 71.2 per cent of BCGEU members voted in the ratification vote. Smith explains that this level of membership involvement is “historic” in that it was extremely high for a ratification vote. She then claims that the turnout to ratify the deal is “good news” because it shows “that our members are engaged—and an engaged membership is the exact kind of membership that is going to continue to fight to make improvements that they want to see.”
Some of what Smith says in the interview about voter turnout in the union may be true. It is certainly the case that the membership wanted to fight—and specifically fight for COLA. The 95 per cent strike vote should have been a very clear indication of that.
This unity to strike for COLA, represented by the high support for strike action, was on the basis of an 80 per cent turnout in the vote on strike action. But what the BCGEU leadership did was turn a 95 per cent strike vote with a turnout of 80 per cent into a turnout of 71.2 per cent with only 53.4 per cent support for the agreement.
The BCGEU leadership is responsible for this decline in turnout and is responsible for breaking the unity in the union. This is because the leadership was unwilling to take that fighting spirit represented by the 95 per cent strike vote and channel it into a fighting force with militant strike action! To use a military analogy, an army cannot fight if its general staff refuses to.
When asked during the interview about some BCGEU members being dissatisfied with the deal and calling it “diet COLA” Smith spoke about the capped COLA components of the agreement. She defended the sliding scale for capped COLA for years two and three of the deal by saying that if inflation is lower in those years, then workers could receive minimum wage increases that are above inflation. She also explained that if inflation is higher in those years then workers will receive a higher percentage wage increase. But she does not acknowledge that if inflation remains as high or is higher than it is now, the workers will still be receiving an effective wage cut for those years.
She even acknowledges that the annualized inflation rate cannot be predicted for years two and three—which is precisely why the capped COLA components cannot be considered COLA at all. If wage increases are capped, this cannot be considered a cost-of-living adjustment. COLA means tying wages to the rate of inflation—without any caps.
When pressed about the membership backlash to the deal, Smith says that some of the other benefits in the deal that weren’t explicitly wage increases (such as pay equity and recruitment and retention issues) are there to make the B.C. Public Service Agency (PSA) “a competitive employer that is going to draw strong talent”!
Two points come to mind immediately: firstly, decent wages (and not wage cuts) must surely be one of the major elements that make an employer competitive when seeking the most talented employees. Secondly, since when is it the job of the union president or the union bargaining team to ensure that the boss remains competitive? The message from Smith seems to be saying that the workers were foolish for believing the union is there to look out for them when in reality it is looking out for the bosses’ interests!
During the interview with Mineer, Smith was asked about whether the union leadership paid enough attention to managing the expectations of the membership. In her reply, she acknowledged the expectations of members by saying that, “over the last two and half years, almost three years now of the pandemic, these are the people who are on the front lines. These are the people who kept the lights on, the doors open, and the wheels turning in our province. And they learned their worth. And so I’m not surprised at their expectations. I believe that they deserve everything that they’ve asked for.”
If Smith truly believes that the workers in the BCGEU and other public sector unions “deserve everything that they’ve asked for”, this belief was certainly not reflected in how the BCGEU leadership organized the strike action. The union could have easily escalated the strike action and used more militant methods to really fight for COLA and everything else the workers deserve and were asking for. The BCGEU leadership explicitly did not do this.
She ended this segment about the expectations of the workers by saying that the workers didn’t get everything they asked for because “bargaining doesn’t always work that way” and acknowledged that “this is not a perfect agreement”. But bargaining didn’t “work that way” because of the way the BCGEU leadership approached bargaining and the organization of strike action. Had the BCGEU organized more determined, militant strike action, then bargaining definitely could have “worked that way” with the workers winning COLA protection.
According to Smith, the ratification of the deal means that “now the real work begins” because work is already underway for the next round of bargaining. She said that “our job over the next three years is to continue to fight for the issues that matter to our members, for the things that didn’t get solved 100 per cent in this agreement. That’s our job as the union and that’s what we are going to keep on doing.”
This seems totally backwards. To be sure, work has probably started on the round of next negotiations. But to say that the real work begins now—after the strike is over? The real work begins only after we’ve waved the white flag, having done little more than fire a warning shot in the form of limited strike action? No, the real work should have begun with the 95 per cent strike vote! The membership was united and prepared to strike for COLA. That is when the real work at winning the demands of the workers and ensuring they get everything they deserve and asked for should have begun.
At the end of the interview Smith says that, “This is the end of one bargaining cycle and the beginning of the next. And we know that there is a lot of work to do. And that, as I said, there are outstanding issues around workload and affordability—which you know, we can only do so much to address affordability in a collective agreement. So, we need to continue to push governments at every single level to deal with issues of affordability in our province.”
It might be true that there is only so much the unions can do about affordability. But this is only really true if the unions accept the logic of capitalism and the perspectives of the Bank of Canada. Along these lines, there is very little the unions can do about some of the factors driving the rise in inflation and the cost-of-living crisis such as supply chain issues, government bailouts for corporations, etc. But one thing the unions can do is fight for COLA and make sure their members are getting wage increases above and beyond the rate of inflation.
The current inflation crisis is at root the result of the general crisis of the capitalist system—and in that sense there is a lot the unions can do, especially if the union leaderships would commit to fighting for workers’ control, economic planning, and to the struggle to overthrow this system which is proving itself rotten to the core.
How not to win a strike
Smith ended the interview with Mineer by talking about the 30,000 other members in the union still at the bargaining table. She mentioned the 550 other collective agreements that need her attention. She basically throws her hands up in the air as she moves on to the issue of negotiating the next (bad) agreement. This begs the question, however: if the leadership of one of the largest unions in the province decides through its actions (or lack thereof) to suffer a loss without a fight, what message will that send in terms of these other collective agreements?
Indeed, what message does it send to the other unions currently bargaining or on strike?
Some 1,200 public-sector workers with the Professional Employees Association (PEA) are currently on strike at the time of writing. The PEA have been quite explicit about the importance of the BCGEU strike for their own strike action.
In fact, the wage component of the deal on offer by the NDP government to the Government Licensed Professionals (GLP) chapter of the PEA is the exact same as the deal offered to the BCGEU and HEU. The BCGEU strike could have set an important precedent for the other public-sector unions at the bargaining table—a precedent in terms of how to win COLA. But now that the BCGEU leadership has capitulated, the deal has become a precedent for how not to win a strike and for how to win “diet COLA”.
Rather than form a common front to coordinate strike action and fight for common demands, the leadership of the BCGEU and other public-sector unions coordinated their actions in order to do precisely the opposite. Rather than coordinate strike action to win COLA, the union leaderships coordinated an end to strike action and ultimately coordinated their capitulation. The BCGEU leadership even asked that other unions delay job actions during the course of its negotiations after the BCGEU put an end to strike action and shut down picket lines in late August. The PEA statement linked above says the following:
The PEA has been working closely with other unions to strategize and coordinate strike activities. In June, GLP members voted 91 per cent in favour of a strike, and on August 17 gave 72-hour strike notice. Around this time, we also delivered a letter of solidarity to the BCGEU in support of their picket lines. Many of our members in the GLP work closely with BCGEU members; they are our friends and family. A GLP walkout was being planned for the week of August 22, as part of an escalating action to pressure the government for an improved offer at the bargaining table. As plans were being confirmed for the walkout, the BCGEU announced they were returning to the bargaining table and requested that the GLP and all other unions support them by pausing their planned job actions.
The reality is that the other union leaderships pausing planned job actions only supported the BCGEU leadership in their capitulation. Pausing job action actually harmed the workers’ struggle for COLA. The BCGEU leadership’s acceptance of “diet COLA” then justified the capitulation of all the other public sector unions. This is the exact opposite of what strategizing and coordinating strike activities should look like.
Preparing a massive backlash
Towards the end of the interview, Mineer said that “At the end of the day, I mean you did get the deal done, right? And we do have peace with the BCGEU in this province. But do you think that this poses a leadership challenge for you, Stephanie?”
Smith responded by saying “Well, you know, we are a democratic organization. And at any time if members, you know, want to see a change in leadership, that is absolutely their right. That’s what convention is. Every three years, it’s a reaffirmation that we’re going in the right direction, or it’s a signal for change… Membership will decide. That’s up to them.”
Union leaderships have been busy selling out their workers in the recent period. Despite strong strike mandates and plenty of momentum with high support amongst the public, unions’ leaderships across the country have repeatedly capitulated and accepted wage increases below inflation.
In January of this year, nurses in Alberta accepted a deal with a wage increase of 4.25 per cent over four years. In June, Alberta teachers approved a new contract with a 3.75 per cent wage increase over two years. CUPE New Brunswick accepted a deal last year with a wage increase of only two per cent a year, plus a 25-cent-an-hour raise, over a five-year contract. The public-sector unions in B.C. are now capitulating all down the line.
But what these capitulations by the union leaders are preparing is a massive backlash by the working class in the future. Smith acknowledges that the 53.4 per cent approval for the ratification of the recent BCGEU deal shows “a level of dissatisfaction”. This dissatisfaction will turn into anger and a desire for change at a certain point when the reality of these deals and the wage cuts due to inflation become apparent. As the cost-of-living crisis worsens, workers will find it more and more difficult to make ends meet. This reality will inevitably drive the working class to fight for changes to improve their living and working conditions.
Eventually, the union leaders who presided over bad deals and wage cuts will be ejected from their positions as workers search for new leaders better suited to lead the struggles of the future—the struggle to win decent wages and improved working conditions, the struggle against inflation and for COLA, the struggle to overcome the crisis of capitalism on the basis of a socialist program.
The capitulation by the BCGEU leadership is indeed a signal for change. And the membership must decide. The last BCGEU convention was in the summer of 2021. The next one will be in 2024. The workers of the BCGEU will remember the capitulation of the present BCGEU leadership. With capitalism in crisis and under the logic of the class struggle, the workers will fight for a return to the militant methods that can win strikes and win them everything they deserve and ask for. When the time comes to decide on the leadership of our union, we will fight for a new, militant leadership that is willing to fight to win!