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Although mediation continues, social services bargaining in British Columbia has taken a turn for the worse as the Community Social Services Employers Agency (CSSEA) conducts a province-wide lockout vote. The vote is set to be completed by January 16.

While the Union Bargaining Association (UBA), representing 13 unions including CUPE, is interested in negotiating a collective agreement, the employers are driving the sector into conflict, says CUPE representative Bob Toop.

As it did in the ferry workers dispute, the Campbell government has charted a reckless course, causing needless confrontation.

The government has ordered community agencies to cut $35 million a year from local services to some of the most vulnerable people in society. CSSEA is calling for massive rollbacks to wages, benefits and hours of work, and elimination of sick leave. In total, these rollbacks will cost workers over $140 million during the term of the proposed agreement. As a result of government pressure, employers initiated a lockout strategy before any serious negotiations took place.

Many benefits, including job security and wage parity, were already stripped by Bill 29 passed in January 2002.

In contrast, the UBA has put forward a proposal that holds the line on most items in the contract. The UBA has also applied for essential services designation to protect the people they serve from CSSEAs dangerous lockout strategy.

Community social service workers provide services for thousands of vulnerable people and families, including children and adults with mental and developmental disabilities, women fleeing abuse, and at-risk young people.

These workers are already paid less (some between $1.73 and $12.03 an hour less) than workers who perform similar work. Most are university or college graduates facing unmanageable workloads as government cutbacks continue.

The system is cut to the bone. Instead of implementing even more cuts, the employers should join us in calling on the government to restore needed funding, says Toop.