A photo of BCGEU members on the picket line.
BCGEU members on the picket line. Credit: BCGEU / Twitter Credit: BCGEU / Twitter

During the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, front line workers were often sentimentally celebrated as heroes. However, now, when they organize and bargain to get better wages and conditions, they are often demonized as hostage-taking thugs. The fall and winter of 2022 is shaping up to be an intense period of strikes and bargaining in Canada, a time when it is vital that we pay attention to how we talk and think about these disputes, and how anti-union propaganda encourages us to get the issues wrong.

A lot is at stake, and already we are hearing business class inspired attacks on workers for having the gall to demand improvements in their lives after the plague years of nonstop service. Working people and their allies need to push back against this propaganda, hunker down, support each other and win some victories on the picket line and at the bargaining table this year. Public service strikes in B.C. represent one of the front lines for this struggle.

In baseball the maxim is “three strikes and you’re out,” but in Canadian labour relations and mainstream media coverage it might as well be “any strikes and you’re out.” There is a  prospect of a busy strike season this fall and winter, with public sector unions that represent around 400,000 B.C. workers seeing their collective agreements age out this year. Both the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which represents 41,000 teachers and the B.C. Nurses’ Union, which represents 45,000 members, could be on picket lines this fall.

There are other significant public sector disputes likely across the country as well. For example, this fall the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the nation’s largest federal public sector union, will see its dispute with their employer, at an impasse since May,  go to non-binding mediation. If that process is unsuccessful, federal civil servants could take job action later in the year. All-in-all, it’s  shaping up to be a historic season for labour disputes across Canada.

In  B.C., where 33,000  B.C. General Employees Union members are currently on strike  against their employer as this column is written, the NDP provincial  government, about to choose a new leader/premier this fall in the wake of John Horgan’s announced resignation,  will  soon have to decide just how seriously it takes the many pro-worker statements it has made over the years.

The Public Service Agency, the formal bargaining agent for the province with its public servants,  invited BCGEU back to the bargaining table on August 23 after the union, armed with a 95 per cent strike vote, had conducted  job actions at the province’s liquor and cannabis warehouses since August 15 and implemented a ban on overtime. The last known bargaining positions of the province and its employees are far apart, with the last government wage offer of 11 per cent over three years a stark contrast to the union’s proposal for a two-year contract with 5 per cent annual raises or a  cost-of-living increase, whichever is higher. Currently, both parties to the dispute have agreed to a media blackout while talks proceed.

In addition to liquor and cannabis distribution workers, BCGEU members include correctional officers, sheriffs, social workers, child protection workers, probation officers, systems analysts, ministerial administrative services, biologists, design engineers, conservation officers, park rangers, wildfire firefighters and government inspectors and planners. A settlement with BCGEU will likely serve as a benchmark for settlements with other public sector unions in the province, and a precedent for union disputes across the country.

Meanwhile, the usual steady drum beat of anti-union propaganda is appearing in the mainstream media. The most repeated anti-worker slur portrays BCGEU workers as “hostage takers,” suggesting that their perfectly legal job action is a kind of economic terrorism. Spokespeople for the restaurant and cannabis retailing industries repeated the insult in many embarrassingly  whiney complaints, which were uncritically echoed by much of the mainstream media. You would have thought that BCGEU members had stormed into liquor and cannabis warehouses brandishing AK-47s, instead of peacefully walking outside with picket signs.  

For example, Jeff Guignard, executive director of the booze industry group Alliance of Beverage Licensees in B.C. told the Vancouver Sun on August 24 that “The right thing to do here would be to pause the strike action while discussions are going on, which is what we are asking them to do today.” Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association joined in this call for unilateral disarmament by the union, saying that to resume bargaining “… doesn’t mean anything as long as the warehouses are closed. It’s getting worse every day.”

Another attack on unions is the claim that the improved wages and conditions they win for members drive inflation. Workers would likely respond that wage demands reflect already existing inflation, rather than causing it. And, strangely enough, even the reliably pro-employer Business in Vancouver Magazine featured a headline in an issue this May 18 that read, “B.C. ‘s Public Sector Contracts Unlikely to Drive Inflation.”

And it is fair to mention that concerns about driving inflation did not keep government MLAs from effectively voting themselves a 10 per cent raise this year when they supported language in the current  budget bill that rescinded a balanced budget penalty clause that would have cost them 10 per cent of salary when the government went over budget, as it did last year and is expected to do so again this year.

So far, BCGEU intends to continue its job action while negotiations proceed. A nine-union coalition of 60,000  B.C. health care workers (the Facilities Bargaining Association)  led by the Hospital Employees Union, which had suspended its contract talks with the government as an act of solidarity with BCGEU, resumed bargaining on August 25.

BCGEU president Stephanie Smith told Global News on August 18, “People recognize that BCGEU members, the 33,000 in the public service, aren’t just fighting for their own wage protections, they’re fighting for wage protections for all workers.”

She was right then, and she is right now. BCGEU workers are on the front line, but the battle, really, is over the rights of everyone who works for wages in Canada. Anyone who cares about fairness for workers should speak out against the “hostage taker” slur and dubious assertions that wage gains drive inflation. We can and should support BCGEU as it bargains for fair wages and working conditions. We can attend at picket lines and encourage the striking BCGEU members- bringing coffee, water and pastries is always a good way to make solidarity concrete. And the next time we see the “hostage takers” or “inflation villain” canard in a news story or on social media, we can counter them with facts and analysis.

Tom Sandborn

Tom Sandborn lives and writes on unceded Indigenous territory in Vancouver. He is a widely published free lance writer who covered health policy and labour beats for the Tyee on line for a dozen years,...