Taxpayers should watch municipal negotiations

Metro Vancouver taxpayers should be paying close attention to the dispute over the way contract negotiations are handled with unionized civic employees.

Several cities have served notice they no longer want to be represented at the negotiating table by the Metro Vancouver Labour Relations Bureau and others, such as Port Coquitlam, pulled out long ago.

Although membership in the bureau is not mandatory and labour relations is not considered a core function of the regional authority, the Metro Vancouver group has been responsible for 60 collective agreements covering approximately 15,000 employees on behalf of 35 employers.

But there are rumblings of discontent dating back several years that this one-size-fits-all regional approach does not acknowledge local circumstances and conditions.

The concerns are arising as the nature of human resource management has changed from adversarial to collaborative, the competition for top wages and skilled employees is fierce, and cities are demanding more autonomy in how they deliver services and treat their employees.

While it’s admittedly difficult to achieve cohesion at the outset of negotiations when one (usually larger) city is willing to have a work stoppage on an issue when another (usually smaller) city is not, and a lot of resentment has built up among the cities over the years, it would be a shame to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Labour consultant Jim Dorsey has analyzed these issues and concluded that there is no going back to the days of a united front. In his report for the labour bureau, he recommends it reorganize to offer a buffet of labour management services and he hopes small and mid-sized cities will find a way to share costs and efficiencies. Whether this can be achieved in time for the current round of bargaining is hard to say, and the timing of this dispute is unfortunate.

Only the naive would believe that a stiff round of union negotiations can be replaced by a  couple of collaborative team-building exercises and a managers’ retreat, and there is a risk that a balkanized approach to labour negotiations will result in higher wages and tax increases that are unsustainable.

Civic politicians would do well to remember that the bottom line for taxpayers — on this issue and most others — is the bottom line.

­—Diane Strandberg, The Tri-City News