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The Vancouver Sun
Tue 28 Aug 2007
Page: A13
Section: Editorial
Byline: Barry O’Neill
Column: Barry O’Neill
Source: Special to the Sun

It’s an exaggeration to call it bargaining, because the truth is this employer has failed to bargain at all with its Canadian Union of Public Employees civic workers.

They tell us straight up that, unlike other Lower Mainland civic employers, it will not negotiate any issues the union identifies as important. For the past year, rather than bargain, they has imposed final offers; caucused; vacationed; disappeared; rotated spokespeople; couriered non-negotiated offers; conducted polls; purchase misleading ads, and pulled other dramatic public relations stunts that would be comedic if they weren’t so offensive and conducted at such inconvenience and cost to the public.

In the United States there is a name for this “take it or strike” approach. It’s called Boulwareism after its author and leading practitioner Lemuel Boulware, a vice-president of General Electric during the 1960s. Boulwareism is an offer or counter-offer that is not meant to be negotiated. When General Electric tried it in 1969, a 101-day strike ensued. This practice hasn’t been used since, as it was ruled to be an unfair labour practice. It is alive and well, however, in Vancouver.

In many ways, this strike has been about the right of unions to represent the concerns of its members at the bargaining table. The city’s refusal to acknowledge this right is what has pushed Vancouver civic and library workers on strike and continues to keep them there, disrupting public services, our city and countless lives.

The most recent so-called “offers” by the City of Vancouver (couriered to the offices of CUPE 15 only moments before they were announced to the media) were not offers at all – they were ultimatums that were never negotiated, but dictated by the city to its employees. Furthermore, it did not address the concerns that Vancouver’s inside workers have repeatedly identified, after a democratic survey of its members, as issues to address in this round of bargaining.

Over the years, the number of auxiliaries or “casual workers” in Vancouver has jumped from only a few to deal with seasonal labour shortages to a vast pool of workers, almost 40 per cent, who are not entitled to medical or dental benefits and have no scheduling certainty. These people are called to work one day and not the next. We see excellent workers who have dedicated 15 or more years of service to the city being put aside for someone who was hired yesterday. Other Lower Mainland municipalities have negotiated improvements in this area and we expect the city of Vancouver to do so as well.

Vancouver’s inside workers are also seeking a measure of protection (in the form of job retraining and redeployment) from the city’s wide-ranging and expressed plans to contract out civic services, an effective job reclassification system, a process to resolve complaints of harassment, and some form of whistle-blower contract language that protects workers from discipline and/or job loss when they speak out on an issue of public concern, such as water safety, equipment maintenance, safety procedures or improper spending.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that most of these labour issues actually cost the city and taxpayers little and in some cases nothing, but serve to enhance the quality and stability of services provided, boost productivity and positively contribute to employees’ sense of general well-being.

Despite this, none of these worker issues are addressed in the city’s ultimatums or in the “final offer” vote imposed on the workers in July.

Why are we able to freely raise and negotiate these issues everywhere, but not in Vancouver? Why were we able to negotiate improvements for auxiliaries in places like Richmond, Delta and Burnaby? Why were library workers able to negotiate pay equity language in Burnaby, but when we presented the same language in Vancouver the city ran to the media claiming the library workers were out to break the bank?

The tactics Vancouver has employed through this round of bargaining and during the civic strike do not belong in a healthy democracy and seem even more out of place in light of the June 2007 Supreme Court ruling related to Bill 29 that states:

“The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely, their work.”

What the City of Vancouver is doing goes against this spirit.

There is no question that union’s need to adapt with the times, but that doesn’t mean giving up our basic right to have a say in improving the working lives of our members and of working people in general.

Barry O’Neill is president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, B.C.