Tax critics wary of region's first new civic contract
The first contract to be signed with municipal workers in Metro Vancouver has set a bar that may strongly influence other negotiating tables across the region.
Critics say New Westminster's deal giving its civic workers pay hikes of 6.75 per cent over four years doesn't bode well for other city councils who hope to keep a lid on their municipal wages and taxes.
"It will probably end up costing taxpayers across the region money," said Jordan Bateman, spokesman for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
He had pressed for a civic equivalent of the province's net-zero mandate that froze labour costs for two years.
"It's another example of a city hall caving to CUPE and signing a deal that's good for those members and not so good for taxpayers."
Bateman worries the New West agreement is the start of a replay of 2007, when Richmond broke ranks with other cities and gave its unionized workers an extra 17.5 per cent over five years to secure labour peace through the 2010 Olympics.
That became the pattern for the rest of the region as other cities signed with their CUPE locals.
"It's unfortunate the cities were so quick to follow the provincial government on the Olympics," Bateman said. "The problem now is they're coming off an extremely lucrative contract. They never took net zero like the provincial unions did."
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which lobbies for civic cost control, also expressed concern that other cities may fall in line.
Spokesperson Shachi Kurl said it's too early to say the New Westminster deal sets a precedent for other unionized wage increases, and noted each city varies in its ability to pay and other unique circumstances.
But she said it could be a factor.
"Even if you have a restraint-minded council or finance director who may want to rein [labour costs] in, that becomes very difficult when all your neighbours are going in a different direction."
The New Westminster deal is retroactive to Jan. 1 and includes increases of 1.25 per cent this year, 1.75 per cent in each of the next two years and two per cent in 2015.
CUPE local 387 business agent George Habib called it a fair contract and said municipal bargaining can't reasonably be compared to the province's net-zero freeze on union pay.
He said the union had a good relationship with New Westminster and saw no point in waiting for one of the bigger cities in the region to strike the first deal.
"There is no incentive at all in waiting," Habib said, citing rumours of a possible wage freeze in Vancouver.
"So if we were to wait for Vancouver and they end up with a zero, then what?"
The other big change from past bargaining rounds is that Metro Vancouver has dismantled its Labour Relations Bureau, abandoning its former role as coordinator of negotiations for most cities.
The decision came after all of Metro's largest cities had pulled out of the joint bargaining arrangement in favour of more individual negotiating flexibility.
Some mayors have expressed concern that well-coordinated union locals will exploit the cities' failure to maintain a united front, resulting in deals that are too rich.
– with files from Grant Granger