CUPE contracts will be big factor in tax rates

Municipal workers received 17.5 per cent increases over five years in their last contract, which was signed in 2007.

Former Langley Township councillor Jordan Bateman knows quite a bit about what drives up municipal costs, after spending five and one-half years on council and working through six municipal budgets.

The real cost drivers are wages and benefits. Township taxes have risen by close to five per cent year after year, because members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the International Association of Fire Fighters  have received steady pay increases. In the case of firefighters, they received sizable top-ups as their wages were adjusted to come more into line with other unionized firefighters in Metro Vancouver.

Bateman is now the B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and as such, is arguing for “net zero” wage increases — those that do not cost taxpayers any more when a new contract is agreed on.

Here’s some of what he had to say in a press release issued last Tuesday: “At least two dozen CUPE contracts expire on Dec. 31, 2011, affecting thousands of municipal workers. CUPE is coming for another series of raises and with Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey, Burnaby and other communities now out of the Metro Vancouver Labour Relations Board, municipalities have never been more splintered in their negotiations. This is not going to end well for taxpayers.”

Bateman notes that municipal workers received 17.5 per cent increases over five years in their last contract, which was signed in 2007 and was for five years, to guarantee labour peace during the Olympics. It is also important to note that the economy was still doing well then and an increase of that magnitude didn’t raise eyebrows the way it would today.

Yet CUPE locals in Greater Victoria have just signed a new contract giving them two per cent increases in each of the next three  years. As Bateman says, “it’s too much.”

The only way that taxpayers in the City and Township are going to see a real moderation in annual tax increases is if the two governments can sign deals with CUPE and the firefighters that come close to “net zero.” This is not too much to ask of these workers.

It’s important to remember that municipal workers and firefighters almost never face layoffs. They don’t have their hours reduced due to a lack of work. They have very good defined benefit pension plans that let them retire early, and are guaranteed by taxpayers.

They have received pay increases in the past three years that are far more than most other workers have got. They have been well taken care of.

I’m not suggesting that local governments should cut their pay or benefits. Rather, I think a simple freeze on wages for at least two years, and a guarantee that any  contract changes won’t cost taxpayers any more money, would suffice.

CUPE workers who work as support staff in B.C. schools have agreed to a contract that basically freezes wages, and it is both realistic and fair to all concerned — workers and taxpayers. Similar leadership from CUPE workers in the municipal sector would be welcome news indeed.

After all, municipal workers are taxpayers too. They pay taxes on their incomes, and they have faced rising property taxes along with other property owners. A “net zero” approach to the next contract would be good for all concerned.