Why municipal labour bargaining will never be the same, regardless of November election results

The majority of collective agreements across Metro Vancouver expire Dec. 31, 2011, right after the civic election. No matter who wins the Nov. 19 votes, bargaining will be completely different from previous years.

In the latest issue of Business in Vancouver, I explain why:

Metro Vancouver municipalities are headed into uncharted waters in December as the contracts for more than 10,000 unionized employees expire.
Municipalities play a big role in the regional labour market.
In 2010, Metro civic governments paid the equivalent of 8,000 full time employees straight pay of more than $475 million. That’s before benefits and does not include payment to auxiliary workers or compensation for firefighters or police.
Wages and benefits make up one of the largest shares of most city budgets.
These workers are covered by a myriad of collective agreements and are represented about a dozen different unions across the 18 key municipalities.
Given these realities, municipal bargaining is often a hard-fought affair.
Yet almost none of the factors remain in place that drove a region-wide five-year deal in 2007 that came only after a long, bitter strike in Vancouver.
That contract, which was retroactive to 2006, came at the height of the economic boom, amid concerns that a shorter term would give unions a hammer to use on employers on the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
The resulting settlement, with four percent wage increases in each of the last two years, gave civic workers — most of whom are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees – a comfortable shield against the cold winds of recession now blowing through the economy.
That shield expires December 31 just as business-friendly think tanks turn their guns on municipal taxes and spending, demanding sharp cuts in civic budgets. Premier Christy Clark’s call for a municipal auditor general is intended to resonate with that audience and civic taxpayers.
Despite annual polls that show high levels of taxpayer satisfaction with the quality and level of public services, business critics are demanding more privatization and less public expenditure, even if that means rollbacks.
They’re echoing, in many cases, the battle that has exploded in the United States over public sector wage and pension benefits, which stand out in an economy that has seen millions of families stripped of jobs, benefits and even their homes.
The context for bargaining has shifted dramatically, but so has the mechanism.
Since the 1970s, Metro municipalities bargained through the Labour Relations Bureau of the regional district. Overall mandates and proposed contracts were vetted by the bureau before local councils could settle.
But the bureau effectively imploded this year as one municipality after another withdrew from the bargaining agency. Surrey, Richmond and Port Coquitlam had either never joined or quit in recent years. Burnaby had given notice to leave.
Vancouver joined the exodus in 2010 and a number of other municipalities followed. (Disclosure: I sit as Vancouver’s council representative on the Metro labour relations board.)
Anxious to find a solution, the Metro Labour Relations Bureau retained veteran labour arbitrator James Dorsey to conduct a review and make recommendations.
Dorsey’s April report concluded that the major municipalities were determined to conduct their own direct bargaining but the smaller ones wanted more co-ordination.
The existing model would have to be torn down, Dorsey said, and a new structure created in its place by those municipalities that want co-ordination.
Dorsey’s report triggered weeks of controversy and confusion among the region’s elected officials.
When the dust began to settle, it was clear that most municipalities would opt for a so-called “autonomy model,” using the bureau for information and analysis while senior staff of each city co-ordinate informally behind the scenes.
Will the region’s unions be able to exploit the new “autonomy” to their advantage? I, for one, am doubtful. CUPE’s local unions guard their autonomy at least as jealously as their employers. Co-ordination is a big challenge on both sides of the table.
All that can be said for certain about the next round of bargaining – which is bound to begin in earnest as soon the civic elections end Nov. 19 – is that nothing is certain.