The B.C. government begins contract talks with one of its largest unions this week, and the union wants a raise as most of its members come off a two-year wage freeze.
The B.C. Government and Service Employees Union represents 25,000 direct provincial employees, including prison guards, deputy sheriffs, liquor store staff, social workers, probation officers, biologists, lab workers and nursing and other staff at facilities including Riverview Hospital and Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.
Another group of BCGEU workers in health, community social service and other jobs with contracted agencies are set to begin talks in February. About 85 per cent of all union members have contracts expiring in 2012.
"We'll be going to every table determined to get wage improvements," BCGEU president Darryl Walker said.
In bargaining conferences held with union members in December, members also want improvements to benefits and job security.
As the union and the provincial bargaining agency exchange opening proposals, the B.C. government is looking at a $3.1 billion operating deficit for this year. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon has repeatedly indicated that there will be no budget increases to pay higher wages.
In its October throne speech, the government said any raises would have to be funded by "cooperative gains" that create savings elsewhere.
That declaration is similar to the "net zero" mandate in effect for the last two years. Most provincial unions accepted the two-year freeze, but the B.C. Teachers' Federation has refused and withdrawn non-essential services since September.
Walker has suggested that opening more government liquor stores on Sundays could generate additional revenues to fund a raise for BCGEU staff. And he isn't ruling out strike action.
"We have a tough road ahead," Walker wrote in an open letter to members on the BCGEU website. "But we're prepared for any action we have to take to get you the improved contracts you've earned."