Dorsey review could trigger overhaul of collective bargaining across Metro

Metro Vancouver municipalities have undertaken a comprehensive review of how they bargain with their unions, a move that could trigger a complete overhaul of a system most large municipalities have rejected.

Veteran arbitrator and mediator Jim Dorsey has been tasked with the review by the Greater Vancouver Labour Relations Bureau. I explored the issue in this column for the Nov. 16 – 22 issue of Business in Vancouver:

They’ve been called the hidden Olympic legacy, collective agreements with Lower Mainland civic unions that will raise the wages of municipal workers four percent this year and four percent in 2011.
Now the events that led to those agreements are driving a comprehensive review of municipal labour relations that could reshape public sector bargaining across Metro Vancouver.
Veteran arbitrator and mediator Jim Dorsey has been tasked with a full review of the regional bargaining structure that will be ready for consideration early next year, well before the “legacy” contracts expire in December 2011.
Purchased at the cost of a divisive 11-week strike in Vancouver, the 2007 settlements eliminated the threat of a dispute in the fall of 2009, at the expiry of a normal three-year agreement and on the eve of the Games.
But the last two years of the new five-year pacts, part of a package hammered out by mediator Brian Foley, provided for the four percent wage lifts, driving bills that now must be paid by regional property owners whose municipalities had to fall in line with the Vancouver pattern.
The four percent increases look pretty good in contrast to a BC increase in the CPI of about 1.5 percent in the last year.
They look even better when contrasted with the “net zero” mandate the provincial government is seeking in talks this year for new agreements with its public sector unions in government, health and social services.
For a generation, Metro Vancouver’s 22 municipalities have co-ordinated bargaining through the Labour Relations Bureau, an organization created under provincial law that provides a range of human resources services as well as negotiation support.
But the inevitable tension between the need for co-ordination on the one hand, and local councils’ requirement to be accountable to their own taxpayers on the other, has proved harder and harder to manage.
Surrey, obviously a very important player in regional bargaining, never opted for full membership. Richmond withdrew from full membership several years ago.
(Under the bureau’s rules, municipalities that have withdrawn from full membership continue with observer status, giving them a window into the regional picture without the constraints and costs of the bureau structure.)
In the wake of the 2007 debacle, Burnaby gave notice of its intention to leave, a decision that became effective earlier this year. In 2009, Vancouver gave notice of its intention to withdraw, and Delta followed suit in 2010.
Despite widespread agreement that co-ordination is valuable, even essential, there was clearly no consensus that the current model is effective.
Even some smaller municipalities, who have the most to lose from a breakdown in regional co-ordination, have expressed frustration at the current arrangement.
Dorsey’s task is to recommend possible changes to the existing bargaining structure that can both restore order and confidence that the needs of various municipalities are being respected.
It’s a tall order, but not out of the question.
All but one of the municipalities in the Capital Regional District participate in a bargaining association around Victoria that has a strong track record of effective labour relations.
If Dorsey’s work finds acceptance, a new structure could be in place for the next major round of municipal bargaining in early 2012.