WHISTLER – The big story at this year’s Union of B.C. Municipalities convention was a report commissioned by the B.C. government that reveals municipal pay increases for unionized staff have been running at twice the rate of provincial raises.
When I asked Premier Christy Clark about the intent of this report, leaked just before the annual UBCM convention, she was blunt. It’s to get this issue onto the agenda for the November municipal elections, which the province has decreed shall be for four-year terms instead of three. After local elections, discussions with surviving and incoming municipal politicians will resume.
Things have been going pretty well for the main municipal union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, for the last couple of decades. As local election turnout has gone from bad to worse, municipal employees themselves have become an increasingly dominant voting bloc.
Then there are the “labour councils” in urban centres, now almost entirely fronts for public sector unions. They quietly survey council candidates to determine their level of affection for ever-growing public payrolls, and dole out campaign funds accordingly. Sometimes they organize full slates, with cuddly names like “Protect Coquitlam” to appeal to low-information voters.
During last week’s convention in Whistler, I caught up to Finance Minister Mike de Jong in a brief break from the dozens of meetings cabinet ministers have with mayors, councillors and regional directors.
Is the province going to impose some kind of solution?
“There’s not some hidden legislative agenda,” de Jong replied. More data needs to be gathered, and the report shows ongoing problems with management salaries at the provincial level as well.
Is this the first step to imposing a tight-fisted centralized bargaining agency, such as the government set up last year to wrestle the B.C. Teachers’ Federation to the ground?
“We haven’t formulated our answer,” de Jong said. “What the data does suggest, however, is that there may well be some merit [to centralized bargaining]. One of the recommendations points to a more coordinated approach to some of the negotiations that take place.”
Will the new municipal auditor general have a role in this?
“The purpose of the auditor was not to become an enforcement mechanism,” de Jong said. “It was to play a traditional audit function on whether taxpayers are getting value for money. To that extent I suppose a municipal auditor might be able to comment on the advantages of coordinating efforts.”
NDP leader John Horgan’s attack on the compensation report was as predictable as it was selective. In his speech to delegates, Horgan called it “one-sided, politically motivated, shoddy work” designed to embarrass local politicians on the eve of their elections.
Did he question Ernst and Young’s numbers, the pay increases for municipal union staff of 38 per cent between 2001 and 2012, compared to 19 per cent for unionized provincial staff? Did he question their calculation that over that period, inflation totalled 23 per cent? No. The facts being against him, he went with an emotional pitch to distract from them.
Recall that during the final days of the teachers’ strike, Horgan suddenly decided that what was really needed was binding arbitration. This was 24 hours after the teachers’ union took that position.
So there’s the big question to be considered by voters as local elections draw near. Which candidates are looking out for your interests, and which ones are working on behalf of CUPE?
There’s another troubling trend in manipulation of local government that was more evident than ever at the 2014 UBCM convention. I’ll discuss that in a future column.
Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc