Is BC Ferries management trying to provoke a strike? And why is the Corporation using misleading polling information to devalue its own workforce?

BC Ferries is currently involved in difficult contract negotiations with its employees. The Corporation — which remains 100 per cent publicly owned in spite of its new mandate as an independently regulated crown corporation — is demanding concessions from its workforce including: reduction in rates of pay, overtime, starting wages and the exclusion of certain workers from the bargaining unit. The BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union is resisting these demands. The possibility of strike action looms.

This week, BC Ferries President David Hahn released a public opinion survey conducted by Synovate — the polling arm of the international business-consulting firm Aegis. The poll and the Corporation’s press release focused on seven questions about the company’s collective agreement with its unionized workforce. Based on this poll, Mr. Hahn claims public support for his position that “our company and our customers cannot afford the current contract.”

The decision to conduct and release the poll was designed to be provocative. The very fact that BC Ferries is spending ratepayers’ money on a poll of this kind during contract negotiations is extremely unusual and perhaps unprecedented in BC. Frequently, mediators will ask both sides in contract negotiations not to comment publicly on negotiations until an agreement is reached.

Moreover, BC Ferries mischaracterized the poll’s results in the media. Let’s look at the actual results. Seventy-six per cent of BC residents expressed “no opinion” about the current BC Ferries contract. Of the 24 per cent that did express an opinion, a majority (13 per cent) finds the contract “fair and reasonable” or favoring BC Ferries. Only 11 per cent said the contract favours the union. This “neutral” question contradicts the Ferry Corporation’s spin, a spin that was reported in the Times-Colonist and elsewhere.

Finally, the specific questions about the current collective agreement were designed to elicit certain responses and amount at times to “push polling.”

“Push-polling” refers to a practice where callers represent themselves as a non-partisan member of a polling organization, then provide negative information about a candidate in an effort to discourage voting or convey a negative or untrue message about an opposing candidate. Another technique is to ask partisan questions in order to produce a desired result for public release in an effort to manipulate public opinion.

Commenting on an important question in its poll, BC Ferries contends, “currently, job promotions are based on seniority, not merit. Nearly 80 per cent of British Columbians believe merit should be a factor.” This response is hardly a surprise. Almost all of us would agree that seniority and merit should be taken into account when awarding promotions. Mr. Hahn uses these results to support his bargaining table position to give management more discretion in hiring decisions.

However, BC Ferries inaccurately claimed that only seniority factored in its promotions. In fact, seniority and merit are both taken into account under the current collective agreement. Candidates for promotion must go through oral and written assessment processes, contrary to the premise of the polling question and the BC Ferries press release. This model is probably a better means of including “merit” in promotion decisions than simply enhancing management discretion.

Sadly, this poll was a waste of money. The only possible purpose would be to turn the public against the union in the current dispute and lay the groundwork for the BC Liberal government to impose managements vision by legislative fiat.

Real negotiations are what BC Ferry users want and need. There may be good reason to change the existing collective agreement at BC Ferries. Both sides should work them out at the bargaining table. It is hard work but thats why we pay management the really big bucks and why unions elect their representatives.

Ironically, the poll only dealt with the union contract. No questions were asked about management salaries or expenses. David Hahn has been given perhaps the most lucrative contract in the history of the public sector in BC.

Of course, polling on Mr. Hahn’s salary would be unfair. He negotiated his remarkable compensation package in good faith with the BC Ferries Board of Directors. And hopefully, he will deliver for BC Ferries users and taxpayers.

However, whether you are in New York or British Columbia, attacking your own workforce is not leadership and presenting misleading information to the public is not good management practice. David Hahn needs to start over.