Courtenay municipal workers reject contract agreement, vote 92 per cent for strike mandate

Unionized City of Courtenay workers who want a three-per-cent wage increase have voted to strike.
The city workers of Courtenay, represented by CUPE 556, voted 92 per cent to strike "for fairness and respect on the job" Wednesday night.

Unionized City of Courtenay workers who want a three-per-cent wage increase have voted to strike.

The city workers of Courtenay, represented by CUPE 556, voted 92 per cent to strike “for fairness and respect on the job” Wednesday night.

“Despite huge budget surpluses, exorbitant managerial wages and substantial boosts to private contractor pay, the city workers are frustrated by the employer’s argument that they cannot afford to properly compensate city workers,” stated a news release from CUPE.

CUPE 556 represents approximately 80 inside and outside workers in the City of Courtenay.

“Everyone deserves a fair share,” Melissa Moroz, CUPE National representative and negotiator for CUPE 556, said in a press release. “City workers are a proud part of what makes Courtenay work, and it only makes sense that they should also be fairly compensated during a time of large budget surpluses and rising costs of living.”

The workers are seeking a three-per-cent increase in every year of the contract, as well as “improvements ensuring the fair distribution of work.”

The union and the City had actually come to a tentative agreement earlier this month. The City has been negotiating with CUPE 556 since approximately September of last year, although meaningful discussion at the bargaining table didn’t get going until the latter part of the year, explained Sandy Gray, Courtenay’s chief administrative officer.

In late January, they came to agreement on several issues at the bargaining table, and the big outstanding issues were wage adjustment and the term of the contract, as well as special wage adjustments for certain positions, he explained.

The bargaining process was delayed, and the City applied to the Labour Relations Board for mediation, he noted.

The mediator held a hearing April 8, and at the end of that hearing, both parties came to an agreement on all issues, including wages and the term of the contract, according to Gray.

The mediated agreement provided for a number of improvements for employees, including benefit improvements and wage increases, according to a press release from the City.

The agreement reached was for a two-year term with two-per-cent wage increases in January 2011 and January 2012.

A memorandum of agreement was executed, and each jurisdiction took that back to their respective authorities to be voted upon — in CUPE’s case to the union membership and in the City’s case, to council.

Courtenay council approved the memorandum of agreement April 18, but the City has been advised that the union membership ratified a strike vote, according to Gray.

They will have to go back to the bargaining table, and the union must give 72 hours notice if it goes on strike, he explained.

CUPE 556 has produced and is distributing a list of Financial Facts — available at http://www.cupe.bc.ca/sites/default/files/Financial%20facts.pdf — about the City of Courtenay “to help dispel the employer’s argument that the refusal to offer a fair contract and support public services is driven by financial concerns,” according to the CUPE release.

Gray was reluctant to respond to CUPE’s press release other than to say he didn’t know where the numbers came from to do the analysis.

“The City certainly doesn’t have a windfall of money,” he said. “The auditors have given the financial department very positive reports, but it’s not like we have a windfall of money. We just keep things balanced.”

The City has begun to prepare for a strike, which would impact a number of services in the city.

“We’ll have to shut down and curtail what services we can provide,” said Gray. “There are certain facilities we supply that cannot operate, like the outdoor swimming pool because you need someone with the expertise to manage the chlorination. Summer programs will be impacted in a number of ways. You don’t have any parks employees or public works employees, so there won’t be work in the streets, except emergency work. City Hall would continue functioning, but it would just be managed by management and excluded staff.”

writer@comoxvalleyrecord.com