Unions call on government to return to bargaining table to head off strike

News release

Joint release of Community Social Services sector unions, HEU, BCGEU, CUPE and HSA

Negotiators for four unions warned at a news conference today that B.C. may be on the verge of the first-ever system-wide strike in community social services.

Ten thousand members of the BCGEU, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Hospital Employees' Union and the Health Sciences Association have voted by large margins in favour of strike action. The unions have set a strike deadline of March 8, International Women's Day.

"A strike or lockout in this sector would be a disaster for many individuals and families. Our members care for and work with the most vulnerable members of our society, including very young children and adults who have physical or developmental disabilities. The last thing these clients need, and the last thing our members want, is a disruption of this important service. But that appears to be exactly where we're headed," said Cliff Andstein, chief negotiator of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.

We are calling on the government today to live up to the promises it has made to these workers. We are calling on the government to send its negotiators back to the bargaining table with a mandate to address the wage gap. We are advising the government that the alternative is a disruption of service that will hurt thousands of people throughout B.C.," he said.

The government has made commitments to end wage discrimination against women in community social services, but there has been no follow through in bargaining. "The time for false promises is over," said Barry O'Neill, President of CUPE BC. "Now government must move quickly and act responsibly toward B.C.'s community caregivers."

The Community Social Services Employers Association has voted 100 per cent to lock out community social service workers represented by the Hospital Employees' Union.

"Social service employers would rather lock us out than sit down and bargain a fair collective agreement," said HEU community social services bargaining committee chairperson Marilynn Rust. "It's past time for Victoria to give CSSEA a mandate to close the wage and benefit gap rather than allowing them to sandbag negotiations."

"For many of our members, transferring from the health sector to the community social services sector has meant a decrease in compensation," said Health Sciences Association negotiator Sheila Vataiki.

"If the government cares about services to women, children and families, it must address this inequity," she said.

The unions also called on Victoria to protect job security and client care in a sector dominated by contractors. "There's no guarantee of consistent care for clients if a group home is sold or closed, or when a contractor changes," said Rust. "Successorship rights are needed to give stronger protection to both clients and care-providers."

The workers are employed in four sectors: community living, family and children's services, services to women and child care. They work with people who have physical or developmental disabilities in group homes, vocational programs, adult day care and child care centres. They provide occupational therapy, day programs, outreach, and help parents with disabilities to look after their children. The broad sector includes transition house workers, counsellors, youth workers, speech therapists, special needs pre-school teachers, infant development consultants, and addiction counsellors.

Most are paid $13 to $14.45 an hour, with no pension plan and few if any benefits. Some starting employees are paid as little as $7.15 an hour. Some who do overnight support and live-in work receive a daily rate that works out to less than the minimum wage. Their counterparts who do similar work in institutions earn $15.94 to $18.13 an hour with full benefits. The last contract expired April 1, 1998.

Andstein described the strike votes in the four unions as "overwhelming". "It is very difficult for men and women who work one-on-one with their clients every day, who have a deep and caring relationship with their clients, to vote to go on strike. The strength of these votes should be an unmistakable signal to government that our members are very determined. The wage discrimination against workers in this sector must end."

The BCGEU represents 6,500 workers in the sector; CUPE, 2,300; HEU, 850; and HSA, 800. The strike vote was 94 percent among BCGEU members, 83 percent among CUPE members, 97 percent among HEU members, and 95 percent among HSA members.