Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Fog of Strikes 03

Letters. Claims. Counter-claims. Press releases and sound bites. Picketers are left wondering who to believe. Neither CUPE nor the City have gained credibility.

Yes the strike votes were over 90% in favour of striking but that response was based upon an offer which was limited to 39 months, reduced medical and dental plans and reduced employee savings plan. Cutting benefits ensured the strong response.

Add Mayor Sullivan referring to city staff as Olympic Game extortionists and the negative votes followed.

City management have now stated that benefits will not be reduced and now the union must respond in kind. The City's actions are the negotiating equivalent of a bait and switch.

CUPE, however, is overly bold if not cocky. Yes the City's initial "final offer" was rejected by 89% of the CUPE Vancouver membership but again context is critical. 39 months - 9.75% increase - reduced benefits.

Now it is approaching 17.5% wage increase over 5 years with benefits intact.

The sticking points appear to be:
  • auxiliary seniority;
  • privatization of Building Service Workers (janitors);
  • hiring staff outside the CUPE seniority structure and paying higher then the starting salary.
The pros and cons of auxiliary seniority can be found at "On the 6th Day."

Privatization extends beyond the spreadsheet argument though it is important. Roundhouse and Coal Harbour have private cleaning contracts. The value of city versus private cleaners is flexibility. On site staff are part of a team and assist with tasks as they arise. Private contractors will bill extra for work not strictly in the contract. Each has it's costs and savings.

Hiring staff outside of the CUPE pool and paying above the starting salary is a requirement in Vancouver's knowledge based economy. CUPE, as with most trade unions, still function as if they were in the midst of the Winnipeg general strike and their members simply cogs in an assembly line style work site. Comparing a City Hall clerk and that of a Community Centre clerk exemplify the difference between the heavily regulated City Hall work site and the free enterprise ethos in Community Centres.

City Hall clerks serve one function and one function only. If you exceed your job description you suffer what Australians refer to as the "Tall Poppy Syndrome." Someone on your team will cut you down to the level of the worksite team.

Community Centres clerks (Recreation Facility Clerks) are the masters of multi-tasking. Front desk customer service, phone reception, payroll, registration, supply inventory. Some lead fitness classes others make the extra effort of learning the names of children and youth who come in for after school programs.

Who gets paid more? City Hall.
Versatility is a negative according to CUPE, City of Vancouver Human Resources and the GVRD Labour Relations Bureau. Performing one task is easy to measure and assess pay. Multi-tasking is not.

I've witnessed two city hall clerks attempt to work a community centre front desk. Both were gone within 3 days. Multi-tasking overwhelmed them.

The primary role of the union is to ensure that staff are not mistreated and provisions of the collective agreement are followed. Yes there are laws to ensure worker protection. Some argue this eliminates the need of a union. Two points:
  1. For each law there are multiple interpretations which are willingly argued by even more lawyers. Even if a law appears black and white someone will discover or argue that there is a shade of gray.
  2. Leverage. Over the course of the strike columnists have referred to the CUPE "monopoly" on civic services. If one enters a negotiation alone the ability to negotiate the best possible deal is limited. Think of the hockey player who negotiates their own contract, because of the teams supposed good will and relationship, only to discover later they accepted a low ball offer. As a member of a large team (or with good representation) the odds of receiving a better deal increase.
As someone picketing 20 hours a week I expect the City and CUPE to get back and negotiate or admit their failure and bring in an arbitrator. Both sides of negotiators hold a grudge against the other that extends in some cases back to the 1981 thirteen week strike.

Arbitrations, if the Vancouver Fire Fighters Union is any measure, work in CUPE's favour. 96% of cases brought to arbitration by the Fire Fighters union have been successful. This may be why the City is dragging it's feet and still not negotiating in good faith and instead hopes attrition will undermine the strikers' determination.

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