It looks like it will come down to the wire.
After weeks of conflicting press releases, verbal jousting and well-attended council meetings filling the chambers with various union supporters and anti-privatization sentiments, the City of Penticton’s bargaining team resumed negotiations with the CUPE team Thursday in a renewed attempt to hash out a new collective agreement for the municipality’s 178 union workers.
The progress of those talks, scheduled to continue today, has led to much speculation throughout the community as each side has taken steps to exact consequences should they fail.
Estimating $400,000 a year in savings should the city privatize operations at the Penticton Community Centre, city CAO Annette Antoniak issued a request for proposals for a five-year contract to do so. By Tuesday’s deadline, the city had received two, according to Mayor Dan Ashton, with senior staff now working on a report to council regarding their viability.
Meanwhile, CUPE local 608 city workers voted 91 per cent last week to authorize a strike if their leadership deems it necessary, with other local union leadership pledging solidarity. And on Tuesday night, CUPE held a telephone town hall meeting, which the union said attracted 4,700 participants.
Surrey CUPE local 402 president Laurie Larsen recalled the negative experiences, including safety issues, she said the City of Surrey and its residents endured after it privatized operations at its swimming pool, explaining how the private operator, to save money, would turn the showers off in the change room, telling kids to clean off in the wading pool instead. The pool has since returned to public operations.
According to the union, contracting out the PCC will cost the city more money in the long run while also increasing costs for users and decreasing quality of services.
The proposal still on the table, said the city, remains that all current employees would keep their jobs at their current pay and benefits or in lieu of benefits percentages, with a 2010 and 2011 wage freeze. And that new hires for positions of: labourers start at $14 an hour; lifeguards start at $14.50; RCMP guards start at $18; and outside positions start at 85 per cent of the job rate, progressing to 100 per cent over time, similar to the present system for inside positions.
However, Finch challenged the accuracy of the city’s description of the proposal, asserting that the word “start” was misleading because the wages outlined above are also the rates the city proposed the positions would cap out at.
“The graduated step program that starts at 85 per cent for new employees and that goes up to the top level, does not include lifeguards, labourers or RCMP guards,” said Finch. “So they won’t get a wage increase unless we get an across-the-board raise.”
Another major stumbling block, said Finch, is that despite the city’s public assurances to the contrary, the pool employees will not actually retain their seniority and wages.
“Twenty-two of the people from the community centre lose their seniority (on March 23),” said Finch. “We have asked several times since the pool closed and as late as our last bargaining dates if they are willing to extend seniority, and they have said, ‘No.’ So right away, those 22 people would then be considered new employees and would have a lower wage.”
Until CUPE has assurances in writing that the workers seniority will be extended, Finch said, the deal is a dead one.
But the mayor still contends that council wants all the CUPE workers at the community centre to return back to their jobs with the same pay, benefits and seniority.
“Council is confident the offer made to the union is more than fair, especially given the current financial position the city is in and is more reflective of the current economic climate,” Ashton said. “We are doing what is best for the taxpayers of Penticton. The proposal in front of the union is incredibly fair.”