Opinion Column

Metro Vancouver mayors fear unions 0

Daniel Fontaine

By Daniel Fontaine, Dialogue with a Difference

Prince George Mayor Shari Green pushed to get a labour deal that worked out to a net-zero cost to taxpayers in the first two years. (FILE PHOTO/QMI AGENCY)

Prince George Mayor Shari Green pushed to get a labour deal that worked out to a net-zero cost to taxpayers in the first two years. (FILE PHOTO/QMI AGENCY)

Municipal politicians are in a no-win situation when it comes to negotiating collective agreements. It’s no wonder they are loathe to play hard ball.

Press a union too hard, trigger a strike and suddenly you are the one blamed for a lack of garbage pickup and dirty streets.

Alternatively, councils can cave in to big labour’s demands and hope the resulting property tax hikes won’t translate into a backlash at the polls.

Earlier this year, the City of Prince George and Mayor Shari Green got almost no recognition from the media for breaking this dysfunctional pattern. That city’s politicians chose to take a page out of the books of their provincial and federal political colleagues, and announced they wanted to cut a deal that worked out to a net-zero cost to taxpayers.

Green took a strong position that the city needed to contain skyrocketing labour costs, and provide some stability in the budget over the next several years. When all the dust settled, she was able to hammer out a four-year agreement which provided for a net-zero cost for the first two years.

The agreement is in stark contrast to other municipalities, which despite weakened economic conditions continue to act as though their citizens and small businesses are automated teller machines.

The most recent municipal poster child exhibiting a lack of fiscal frugality is Port Alberni. Coming off nearly double-digit wage hikes staff received in the previous collective agreement, the city announced it was going to pile on nearly 9% over the next five years.

“It is the frustrating reality of life in British Columbia,” says Mike Klassen, B.C. director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “Local government spending is unsustainable — with a few exceptions like Prince George it’s out of control. With municipal elections happening in November, it must become an election issue.”

Last week Jim Flaherty, Canada’s minister of finance announced that a key component of his balanced budget will be delivered through a containment of labour costs. The government currently spends a staggering $46 billion per year on wages and benefits.

The federal government is now heading into key collective agreement negotiations with a mandate to slash about $7 billion in labour costs over the next six years. Needless to say, the public sector unions have banded together and vow to fight the move.

While Prince George’s mayor and her council should be applauded for providing some leadership and creativity on the labour front, don’t expect it to be replicated in a local municipality near you anytime soon.

Daniel Fontaine is a local political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @Fontaine_D.  

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