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War clouds loom on the B.C. labour front

The years of labour peace this province has known for almost a decade may be about to end.

The years of labour peace this province has known for almost a decade may be about to end.

There are early warning signs on a number of fronts that suggest the provincial government is on a collision course with some key sectors, notably education and health.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation has completed a strike vote that will result in teachers withdrawing from administrative duties starting in the fall. That will eventually ramp up to more serious job action, with an outright school strike looming for the spring.

The chances for a negotiated contract, while never good, look very bleak right now. The government will not offer any salary increase, and the teachers' union claims the employer is seeking to exact all kinds of concessions.

According to the BCTF, the employer wants to eliminate seniority provisions and allow forced transfers. As well, the employer wants yearly evaluations of every teacher and the ability to fire a teacher based on a single evaluation.

There is no sign the government is interested in doing anything to address the teachers' top concern: classroom conditions, which include the size and classroom make-up.

Put it all together and it's easy to see where this is headed. Of course, a strike will be short-lived as the government will -- again -- impose a legislated contract after just a few days of schools being behind a picket line.

The government must also be bracing for a confrontation with its own workforce. The B.C. Government and Service Employees Union has made it clear it will not accept a continuing wage freeze.

The union's contract expires in the fall, and if the government sticks to its position that there is simply no money for wage increases for public sector employees, some kind of job action seems likely.

In fact, an outright strike seems possible. The BCGEU has, in the past, been able to carefully negotiate contracts that have protected its membership at a time when the government was engaged in serious downsizing and privatization. However, the union's patience in waiting for a wage increase seems at an end.

But the most challenging labour situation facing the government is with B.C.'s doctors. Both sides are negotiating to renew the Physician Master Agreement, and already the government has tabled almost 12 concessions it is seeking from the B.C. Medical Association.

"Their proposals came as an unpleasant surprise and signalled a very different approach by the new government than we had experienced with the previous administration," BCMA president Dr. Ian Gillespie wrote in a letter to his members, some 10,000 doctors, earlier this month.

Gillespie calls the government's proposals "draconian" and "unacceptable" and is worried about a confrontation in the months ahead.

The government appears to be trying to wrest more control from the doctors, as it seeks to eliminate or downgrade committees or programs that give physicians a degree of input or control.

It also is trying to eliminate payments in some areas.

This is all bad news, and doesn't fit with Premier Christy Clark's "families first" agenda. Relations between doctors and the government have been smooth for almost a decade, a near-miracle considering the previous three decades of acrimony between the BCMA and Victoria.

Why rock the boat now?

Many of the programs and committees negotiated with the BCMA in the expiring master agreement are still working very well. How will jabbing a stick in the BCMA's eye improve the health-care system, particularly since it may lead to a return to the bad old days, which saw doctors close their offices and clinics in protest over government measures?

Clark may not realize how hard it can be to negotiate with the BCMA. It is not like dealing with a regular union -- like the BCTF or BCGEU. Instead, it is akin to cutting a deal with several thousand self-employed business people, who act in concert when it suits them but who can quickly pursue individual agendas if they think that course of action is called for.

Frustrating, maddening, aggravating, all are terms used by health ministers in the past when it came to BCMA negotiations. It will be hard for the government to win this fight, and I see no evidence for the need to even pick one.

So get ready for some labour showdowns in the months ahead.

Prediction: the government will impose a teachers' contract, reach a compromise with the BCGEU, but will lose a fight with the doctors.