The foul smell of a long summer strike

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am


It has already been a long hot summer in Vancouver. Now it seems it is going to be a smelly one as well. After weeks of 'will they, won't they' exchanges between civic employees and management, the question is no longer if the city will be hit by another strike - it is how long will it continue.

Workers, including refuse collectors, rejected what the city called its final offer of a 9.75 per cent wage increase over a 39-month term. There are no reductions in benefits, but no guarantees of job security, seniority or whistle-blower protection the union wanted.

The 39-month contract is important for the city because it needs to have an agreement in place to ensure there is no more labour disruption until after the 2010 Winter Olympics. The city has gone to great pains to tout its world-class status in preparation for the Games, and the chance that employees could hold the city to ransom with the threat of a strike is one that it desperately wants to place well beyond the ambit of possibility. Workers, who understandably want to protect their bargaining position, are seeking a shorter contract.

There will no doubt be another strike after this one, but that is a worry for the future, after the Olympics. For now, the city and the thousands of municipal workers are growing ever more entrenched, fuelled by anger and distrust.

'[Management] only want to impose and dictate their mandate, completely ignoring the concerns of city workers,' said Paul Faoro, president of Local 15 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Those concerns include contracting out and privatisation of public civic services.

For the city's part, the union's demands are 'far beyond what the city can afford,' said city spokesman Jerry Dubrovolny. There is no point in returning to the bargaining table if the union will not budge, he said.

Unfortunately for the city, it cannot bargain the way the province of British Columbia did two years ago. Bolstered by a large windfall surplus in the provincial coffers, the government offered a huge incentive to unions. In exchange for signing contracts that would take hospital workers, nurses, teachers and other provincially funded workers past the Games, the province gave each union member about C$5,000 (HK$37,300) in cash.

Vancouver residents are wearily familiar with what a city strike means. Refuse will go uncollected, park services will be reduced, city day cares will shut down and cemeteries will not be operating.

But motorists looking for a silver lining will be in for a disappointment - those who hand out parking tickets are designated as providing an essential service, meaning that they are legally prohibited from striking.

The city's 600 non-unionised managers were preparing to pick up the slack. Chief clerk Syd Baxter, one of the most powerful men in city hall, accidentally sent opposition councillors an e-mail meant for a friend, in which he frets: 'Hope I don't get toilets.' He then compares the hallowed city council chamber to a big toilet bowl.

Vancouver's surrounding municipalities of North Vancouver district, Delta and Burnaby are also facing industrial action.

Hopefully, all the walk-outs and picket marching will not result in any injuries - patients who break bones will face long waits for service. As part of industrial action against St Paul's hospital, one of Vancouver's busiest, orthopaedic surgeons are refusing to see patients except in emergency cases. Welcome to the summer of discontent.