White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin (left)

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin (left)

Fractured cities set to face off against unions

First round of bargaining without civic coordination

Civic labour unions are heading back to the bargaining table to demand pay hikes for their members, but local cities have scrapped their own union that aimed to present a united front and protect taxpayers.

Critics say the dismantling of Metro Vancouver’s Labour Relations Bureau will leave local cities divided and at greater risk of ending up with much more expensive contracts.

“I don’t think it’s a wise course of action,” White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin said. “It would be incredibly naive to think CUPE is not bargaining on a regional basis.”

Metro’s board voted last Friday to redraw the labour relations function, ending the joint bargaining role it previously handled.

Instead of acting as the single negotiator for multiple cities, the pared down labour relations service will mainly share information and provide other support to help cities bargain on their own and deal with other labour-related matters.

And that will only continue until the end of 2012, when the function is to dissolve unless the Metro board either extends then arrangement or creates a new labour bureau.

“It’s bad news for property taxpayers, because they end up paying the bill,” said Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman.

“Any time you cut up a region into smaller parts and allow each city to negotiate their own deal, you open up the door to whipsawing, where every settlement is sweeter than the last.”

Metro’s Labour Relations Bureau (LRB) had been crumbling for years, as cities gradually pulled out, saying they wanted more flexibility to do their own deals and address local issues.

But the death knell arguably came this month, when heavyweights Vancouver and Burnaby pulled out of the LRB, joining other non-members like Surrey, Richmond and Port Coquitlam. West Vancouver and Delta were also slated to withdraw this spring.

They leave behind the region’s smaller municipalities, which consultant Jim Dorsey warned last year would be more vulnerable to major unions that can exploit “any erosion of employer solidarity.”

The last big round of bargaining happened in 2007, when cities were under pressure to secure labour peace through the 2010 Olympics.

Richmond broke ranks that year and signed a deal that gave its unionized workers a 17.5 per cent pay hike over five years. That ended up forming the broad pattern across the region.

Bateman said the 2007 settlement was excessively rich in light of the fact the world was about to tumble into a deep recession.

Now, he says, taxpayers need a chance to “catch their breath.”

Bateman is urging cities to follow the provincial government’s lead and adopt a net-zero mandate where there can be no net increase in the cost to the city, but pay raises are possible if efficiencies are found to fund them.

So far, he’s not optimistic, noting several municipalities on Vancouver Island have already signed new three-year deals providing an extra two per cent annually.

“I’d like to see a province-wide bargaining unit mandated by the provincial government, much as they do with teachers,” he said. “That way you’re not playing one community off against the other and each city can deal with the local details.”

New Metro board chair Greg Moore agreed the last contracts were too rich but said he’s not convinced the end of group negotiating will be as bad as some cities fear.

“I think this gives more flexibility to the municipalities to bargain based on the needs of their local residents,” he said, noting some cities have their own unionized staff collect garbage, while others contract it out.

Moore is the mayor of Port Coquitlam, which hasn’t been a member of the LRB since 1982. Surrey has never been a member.

He said the Metro mayors’ committee will decide later this year whether there should once again be a bigger regional role in bargaining, as urged by White Rock and the Township of Langley.

“We’re kind of starting at a clean slate,” he said.

The Dorsey report had advised the region allow the bureau to collapse before aiming to rebuild a new model to better serve the smaller cities.

The report had cautioned that without some coordination, cities may increasingly poach key employees from each other and wealthier cities will sign sweetheart deals with their unions that are unaffordable elsewhere in the region.

Contracts expired Dec. 31 in Richmond, Abbotsford, Burnaby, Vancouver, North Vancouver City, North Vancouver District, New Westminster, Delta, Surrey, Port Coquitlam and Coquitlam.

Metro’s LRB had negotiated more than 60 collective agreements, covering 15,000 employees, on behalf of 35 employers within the region.

It was set up more than 40 years ago to provide a united front for Metro cities to negotiate common pay and benefit packages while keeping bargaining costs down.

Under the revised structure, Metro will coordinate strategic discussions and offer all member cities research on pay, benefits and negotiation trends, as well as providing other services on a fee-for-service basis. It can also charge other public bodies that want to buy those services.

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