By Darryl Walker, Special to the Vancouver Sun
For over a decade, front-line services helping the most vulnerable British Columbians — adults with developmental disabilities, youths-at-risk, women fleeing violence — have been subject to funding cutbacks. This year, we are finally turning a corner thanks to the power of collective bargaining.
Virtually every family in B.C. has been touched by support from community-based social-service agencies. They care and provide support for the most vulnerable among us, such as youths in conflict with the law, aboriginal families, the mentally ill and addicts facing their demons.
The Province of B.C. officially recognizes March as Community Social Services Awareness Month. For us, this is an opportunity to recognize the work of these caring professionals ensuring no one is left behind, and celebrate our recent achievements for the sector.
Unlike previous years, we now have some cause for celebration: Funding increases are finally coming to front-line community social-service agencies that help those with the least. We have begun reversing a decade of funding cuts and declining wages that have totalled over $300 million since 2001.
About 11,000 unionized community social-service workers ratified on Feb. 17 a new collective agreement negotiated by the BCGEU and other unions. The deal foresees wage increases of up to 11.5 per cent by 2019, plus an economic stability dividend that may yield further pay increases.
We negotiated this deal with government at the public-sector bargaining table, fulfilling a long-standing union promise to give this sector the attention it needs and deserves.
Frontline agencies will tell you recruitment and retention are real concerns when starting wages not only fail to follow the cost of living, but fall in real terms over a decade. Family-service workers, residential-care aids, shelter workers, life-skills workers and other caring professionals in the sector are often forced to take a second or third job just to make ends meet.
The negotiated wage increases will be a relief. Community-based social service workers will significantly close the wage gap with comparable sectors, notably community health. That’s a huge deal.
Unlike previous deals in which wage increases were funded through penny-pinching and forced savings, the provincial government has agreed to fully fund these increases. We have that promise in writing, which should allay the fears of the over-stretched, cash-strapped agencies trying to do so much with so little and pay a living wage to their employees.
Together with self-advocates, families, agencies and other unions, the BCGEU has also been a leading advocate to push for more funding for community-living programs helping adults with developmental disabilities.
After many years of cutbacks, in 2012, we received a one-time $40 million cash injection into Community Living BC, the Crown corporation responsible for funding services and supports for adults with developmental disabilities.
This year’s provincial budget provides over $70 million in additional annual funding allocated to CLBC for each of the next three years. For the BCGEU, that was the real headline of the 2014 budget, not vague assertions about an eventual LNG windfall. This funding increase is the culmination of years of advocacy work involving BCGEU and key partner organizations, such as Inclusion B.C., the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, Developmental Disabilities Association and Moms on the Move, among others.
This year, there is some reason to celebrate and recognize Community Social Services Awareness Month. I am proud BCGEU’s negotiation and advocacy skills are leading to improved funding for services and supports for vulnerable British Columbians.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” Gandhi famously said. Indeed. Organized labour has a continued role to play in raising the bar, not just for workers with fair wage deals, but also in improving funding and access to services that help the vulnerable. Labour unions are, fundamentally, about fairness for all.
Darryl Walker is president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union.