Cheryl McLachlan

Social service workers walk off the job in the Capital Region

Social service workers in Greater Victoria were the latest to take part in a provincewide rotating strike in an attempt to gain higher wages

Social service workers in Greater Victoria were the latest to take part in a provincewide rotating strike in an attempt to gain higher wages and improved working conditions.

Picket lines were up at Community Living Victoria in Saanich on Tuesday, while members of the Hospital Employees’ Union at day programs at Crossroads Human Services in Langford and Kardel Consulting Services in Vic West were also off the job.

Staff maintained essential service levels and the job action didn’t affect residential care homes. The day programs affected related to independent living and employment counselling.

The groups that picketed are two of 10 social services employees unions which comprise the 15,000-member-strong Community Social Services Bargaining Association. The association includes members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the HEU.

“They’ve been at the bargaining table almost constantly for three years, including since February of this year and at this point, six-to-eight months later, (the Community Social Services Employers’ Association) haven’t even made a wage offer,” said Bob Wilson, HEU bargaining spokesperson.

In 2002, the starting wage for a front-line worker in the sector, such as a group home worker who is responsible for cooking and providing nursing care, was $16.83 per hour. Today the wage sits at $15.54. The association is asking for a three per cent wage increase each year – about $20 more each week for full-time workers – for a total six per cent over the course of the two-year contract.

“(Community Social Services employees) figure they’ve given back enough over the last 10 years and it’s time for them to receive a fair wage increase for what they do,” Wilson said. “They have a lot of families’ support in this because the whole sector is underfunded … We feel we have some catching up to do.”

“They have made no offer at this point, eight months into the negotiation,” Wilson said.

Gentil Mateus, chief executive officer of the Community Social Service Employers’ Association, said so far the bargaining process has been respectful and constructive, despite making little headway on the top issue of wages.

“The challenge we face under the mandate any money that’s generated for wage increases has to come from savings or efficiencies from within the sector,” Mateus said. “That’s very challenging for this sector because unlike the majority of other sectors, we realized most of our efficiencies in 2003.”

While wages are the No. 1 concern, the unions hope to settle other concessions, such as the ability to transfer between agencies and maintain seniority in an effort to retain qualified workers, Wilson noted.

“If government put $25 to $30 million on the table, we’d have a deal next week,” he said. “Even though compared to a lot of the bargaining going on, 15,000 is a fairly small sector, we feel this group deserves more than the others.”

“Some wage increases are possible. The question is how much and where’s the money going to come from?” he said.

Cuts to benefits and savings generated through work safety related costs may be the source of additional funds, Mateus said.

Rotating strikes began last week and will continue throughout the province in the days to come.

nnorth@saanichnews.com