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Civic unions poised to conquer Metro's divided cities

Metro Vancouver
Metro Vancouver's 21 municipalities are split over whether to jointly bargain with civic unions.
— image credit: File

A once-unified front by local cities in labour negotiations with their unions has crumbled, raising fears that cash-strapped taxpayers in much of Metro Vancouver will soon be forced to pay their civic workers significantly higher wages.

Cities have been gradually bailing out of the Metro Vancouver labour relations bureau, an arm of the regional district that coordinates bargaining for the region's municipalities to keep a lid on contract costs.

But the crisis has now come to a head on the eve of a new round of talks with unionized employees set to start later this year.

A new report from labour consultant Jim Dorsey concludes the breakaway cities can't be brought back into the fold and the other mainly smaller municipalities that choose to band together should form a new bargaining group.

Already out of the labour relations bureau are Surrey, Richmond and Port Coquitlam, while Vancouver, West Vancouver, Burnaby and Delta have given notice in the past three years of their intention to leave the bargaining group.

"The four largest will act in their self-interest," Dorsey's report concludes. "Let them go their separate ways and get on with it. There must be some tearing down before rebuilding."

Since the breakaway group is home to more than 70 per cent of the region's residents, the remaining 14 mainly smaller municipalities have fewer resources to pool to counter the municipal unions.

The risk, some mayors say, is that unions will secure advantageous deals with some cities and then play those agreements off against other councils.

"The downside is you'll see a bit of whipsawing happening," Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender said.

"If one group agrees to a settlement it will set the track for everybody else," he said, adding some cities may agree to new deals with more generous terms that other cities can't afford.

"The smaller municipalities, in particular, are the ones that are potentially the most drastically affected."

The breakaway cities contend they could have reached better agreements in the past but were barred by the restrictive group bargaining association because other cities objected to some of the terms.

They say they ended up paying too much in 2007 when Richmond signed a 17.5-per-cent five-year deal with its workers that other cities were later forced to match.

And some of those cities feel they don't get enough value for what they invest in the labour bureau.

All Metro Vancouver cities share in at least some of the $2.5 million annual cost of the bureau, with participating members paying more.

While cities like Vancouver and Burnaby don't want to be bound by the bureau and wish to be free to strike their own deals with civic workers, they still want some of the benefits of the association, like intelligence on what their neighbours are negotiating.

Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini sees the collapse as a healthy evolution of the civic employers' association.

"You need this sort of a breakup in order at some point in the future to rebuild something new," he said.

He expects the smaller cities will band together because there is strength in numbers.

"The worrisome part is if a bigger municipality with some means goes out and signs a contract that is more lucrative," Trasolini said. "That is the danger, especially for smaller municipalities."

Dorsey's report echoes the concern of "concession contamination" and the potential that wealthy cities will do sweetheart deals that get replicated and force the rest of the region to raise taxes or sacrifice other spending priorities.

But it also recognizes complaints about the inflexibility of the one-size-fits-all bargaining system.

A "slavish" adherence to regional contract standards may be less innovative, the report notes, and seen as handcuffing cities that think they can come up with more creative solutions with their unionized workers and achieve more positive local relations.

The rigid bureau-controlled negotiations have led some cities to covertly strike "stealth agreements" or unwritten understandings outside of collective agreements, according to Dorsey.

"For them, belonging to a defensive alliance is more a burden than a benefit," he said, citing complaints the bureau is tired, failing, backward-looking and unaccountable.

Dorsey's recommendations include creating an open public database of collective agreements.

The new association of smaller cities expected to emerge may coordinate research and other services that non-members could buy into on a fee-for-service basis, although they wouldn't be privy to the details of active negotiations.

Dorsey's report also notes there is often too heavy a focus on the pay rate negotiated and not on the myriad other factors in a contract that can affect the costs to taxpayers.

Cities also have widely varying demands of their civic workforces, with some cities willing to pay significantly more for "no call too small" service standards.

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