Public sector bargaining in 2006: important lessons for 2007

Unions representing close to 240,000 provincial public sector workers in BC have just completed marathon bargaining sessions with their employers. The bargaining has been the first real test of Finance Minister Carol Taylor's plan to re-engage in full-scale, free collective bargaining with public sector workers and an important opportunity for those unions to tackle critical contract issues with their employer.

Minister Taylor made no secret of her interest in wanting to see labour peace. Her government's track record of aggressive labour relations tactics had done serious damage to the BC Liberals' public support and had greatly undermined morale across much of the provincial public sector. As well, Minister Taylor knew that with a significant budget surplus on-hand and more forecast in the foreseeable future, it would be impossible to deny fair settlements at any public sector bargaining table.

Her announcement in November, 2005 that she was not only prepared to engage in free collective bargaining, but also provide incentives for early settlements and longer term agreements, set the stage for the marathon bargaining that led to agreements settled by March 31, 2006.

Although collective agreements in much of the post-secondary education system do not expire until 2007, there were some important developments in this current round of bargaining that we will need to pay close attention to as we prepare for bargaining in our sector. One of the most important developments occurred at those post-secondary bargaining tables that achieved settlements by the March 31, 2006 deadline. At Thompson Rivers University (TRU), which was negotiating its first collective agreement since gaining university status, FPSE labour relations staff rep, the TRU Faculty Association negotiator and the TRUFA Bargaining Committee were able to secure not only significant improvements in salary scale, they also achieved a new continuing sessional category as well as provisions that will allow Limited Term Contract instructors to move automatically into tenure-track. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is calling the tenure-track provisions "the gold-medal standard for the university sector".

At two other post-secondary bargaining tables-Langara College and the University College of the Fraser Valley-negotiators have linked salary scale improvements to whatever we are able to achieve in 2007 bargaining, a move that reinforces the importance of our coordinated bargaining structure in 2007. The Langara settlement also resolved a contentious issue over whether administrators could move division chairs from the bargaining unit; division chairs will stay in the bargaining unit.

A number of broader trends in this current round of bargaining are also important to recognize. For example, it's clear that the provincial government is serious about addressing retention and recruitment issues when it comes to improvements in salary scale. In many sectors, including health care and direct government services, salary scale improvements were designed to ensure that BC kept pace with salary improvements in other provinces. That's an important development for post-secondary negotiations because of the significant improvements that we have seen in the salaries of post-secondary instructors in provinces like Ontario and Alberta.

Many of the 2006 settlements also dealt with the issues of employment security, contracting-out and privatization. Although those issues play out differently in every sector, the fact that the 2006 settlements found new ways to address these issues is something that we need to consider in our 2007 bargaining priorities.

As well, many of the recent settlements tackled the tough problem of improving benefit plans. Again, the similarities among sectors is difficult to sort through, but the fact that many tables found innovative ways to secure either more funding for their plans or better management of them is a trend that we should consider carefully as we priorize our bargaining strategy over the next several months.

The most encouraging development in the 2006 round of bargaining? An acknowledgment by the provincial government that free collective bargaining not only works, but can achieve innovative results if it's given the opportunity. It's a lesson that will hopefully open the door wider for union input into other important public policy areas as well.

That's a big change from the last four years, but as Minister Taylor would certainly admit, closing the door on unions wasn't working either.

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.