Sea to Sky Corridor community social service workers took to the picket lines on Friday (Oct. 26).
Employees from Sea to Sky Community Services and the Squamish Helping Hands Society stood outside their offices on Second Avenue in their first day of action.
“We have about 100 workers in a strike position,” said Andrea Duncan, B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU) Local 303 chair.
The front-line workers are striking for stable social programs and a fair and reasonable wage, Duncan said. During the past decade, more than $300 million has been cut from the social service sector, she said. That has impacted not only workers, but the people they serve, Duncan noted.
“A lot of our clients aren't able to get service in a timely manner,” she said.
There are few people who haven't been touched by the sector's various initiatives, said Patsy Harnston, the chair for the Community Social Service Bargaining Association. Social workers deal with some of society's most vulnerable members and programming aids everyone from single mothers to people with disabilities and immigrants.
In most classifications, the sector's employees' starting wage has fallen since 2002. That year, a residential care worker earned $16.83 an hour, but now receives $15.54 an hour, Duncan noted. Over the same period the cost of living has increased by 18.1 per cent, she said.
“Lots of our workers use the food bank,” Duncan said.
The services are doing more with less, but it's taking its toll, she added. A one per cent wage increase for the entire community social services field would cost the government $4.5 million, Duncan said.
Negotiations between the 10 unions, representing 15,000 workers, and the Community Social Services Employers' Association (CSSEA) — one of six in the B.C. public sector — started last January. Their contract expired on March 31, 2012, and rotating job actions started last November.
“We are happy to get back to the table at any time,” Duncan said.
The employers' association's job is to assist its members and government to negotiate an agreement for the community social worker sector, CSSEA CEO Gentil Mateus said. The government recognizes the public sector is coming out of two years of zeros, he said. However, the province has no money to pump into the field.
“The money increase has to come from within savings within the sector,” Mateus said.
The action is particularly difficult for the social service sector, he noted, as the sector started making such adjustments in 2003. Compounding the situation is the economic downturn, Mateus said.
“It's challenging. Obviously we are doing our best,” he said.
Job action and demonstrations are part of the bargaining process, the Minister of Social Development Moira Stilwell stated in an email to The Chief.
“Essential services levels are in place to protect the health, safety and welfare of the clients who may be impacted by any strike action taken by the union as they depend on the support provided by employees in the social services sector,” she noted.
Despite the tough fiscal environment, significant progress has been made under the Cooperative Gains Mandate, Stilwell wrote.
“I am hopeful the parties will be able to reach an agreement soon,” she stated.