Opinion

Here’s B.C.'s big political idea of 2013

The traditional style of public sector labour relations in B.C. may be on the way out. - Black Press files
The traditional style of public sector labour relations in B.C. may be on the way out.
— image credit: Black Press files

VICTORIA – One of Canada’s great entrepreneurial success stories in recent years is WestJet, the Calgary-based airline that is expanding across the country and taking on European routes.

Clive Beddoe, the founding CEO of Westjet, was famous for helping the cabin crew tidy up the plane before getting off a flight. And the company is also known for its profit-sharing program, with all employees referred to as “owners” who have a stake in the success of the operation.

I thought of this management approach when news emerged that the B.C. government was offering public service unions a new kind of contract, with a five-year term and wage increases tied to improved economic growth.

The surprising thing is that unions are accepting the idea, even though provincial growth must exceed the government’s independent economic forecast council projections before it can take effect in a given year.

The generally non-militant Health Sciences Association was the first to recommend acceptance of a five-year agreement with only 5.5 per cent raises guaranteed. Then they were joined by negotiators for 51,000 health and social services employees, represented by the B.C. Government Employees’ Union and other unions that have long been adversaries of the B.C. Liberals.

John Fryer, negotiator for the BCGEU going back to the epic battles with Social Credit governments and now a professor at University of Victoria, wasn’t impressed when he heard the news.

“These deals reflect what happens when public sector unions back the losing party in a provincial election,” he said. “Union bargaining power takes a trip down the pooper.”

I think there’s more than that going on. Perhaps today’s union leadership is beginning to accept that its wage, benefit and pension arrangements look pretty good compared to the harsh reality of private businesses competing in a global economy.

I asked Premier Christy Clark if this new approach is inspired by private-sector profit sharing. She agreed that is the model.

“I think that’s a great principle for all of us to work from,” Clark said. “Until now, the growth of public sector wages has been completely insulated from changes in the private sector. And this is the first time we’ve ever been able to successfully link those two things. At this point it’s still a small increment wage growth, but it’s a big change, and I hope we can continue to build on it.”

From an employee perspective, it is indeed modest. If real gross domestic product increases one per cent beyond the independent forecast used in the provincial budget, employees get an additional half of one per cent raise for that year.

Contrast this labour relations development with what’s happening on the federal scene. A classic confrontation is brewing between the Harper government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

A key dispute is over sick days, which the government estimates are averaging 18 a year. PSAC currently has 15 “bankable” sick days a year, which the union president refers to as a “negotiated right.”

It takes me back to my first union job, where I was warned never to take just one sick day. We negotiated for two at a time, so always take two, the union rep told me. Implicit in this is the mindset that employees should give as little and take as much as possible.

Looking through my files each December for the B.C. story of the year, I consider what is likely to matter five or 10 years from now.

This partnership approach to building the provincial economy is my pick for 2013.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.

Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

 

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