The City of Prince George's decision to hire a Vancouver-based labour lawyer to negotiate on its behalf in upcoming contract talks with unionized city workers could either be a stroke of genius or reckless ignorance.
Mayor and council will not be at the bargaining table - in the same way the education minister doesn't sit down with the B.C. Teachers Federation for contract talks - but, like the education minister, mayor and council will give direction and set goals for their chief negotiator.
Bringing in an outsider, despite the obvious costs, can have its advantages. An outsider is less likely to make talks personal and brings fresh eyes to outstanding issues, possibly coming up with creative solutions. If a new deal is only forged after painful and bitter bargaining, the outsider leaves, taking away much of that negativity and allowing city management to continue having a more personal and respectful relationship with unionized staff.
While some will argue that the city shouldn't be spending money on an outside consultant for labour talks while it continues to try to slash costs, bringing in a professional negotiator could save money in the long term. If Adriana Wills submits a legal bill of $30,000 to the city for her work this year but there is $100,000 in savings for the city over the life of the contract, that's 70,000 good reasons to justify her fees.
The city is currently operating under interim city manager in Kathleen Soltis, the manager of corporate services. Asking her to take the lead on negotiations would be to ask her to do a third job on top of the two more-than-full-time jobs she already has. If Soltis feels that neither she nor anyone else at the senior management level at the city has enough knowledge and experience at contract bargaining to serve the city well, it would have been the responsible thing for her to recommend mayor and council bring in a professional negotiator.
Representatives of the two local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees representing city staff said they were disappointed to hear the city was bringing in a labour lawyer.
"I do know that the past history of Prince George, we've always managed to resolve and come through with fair collective agreements just working together across from each other," said local 1048 president Janet Bigelow. "We've not had one strike. We've resolved everything fine."
That may be so but it's also not providing the full picture of what goes on behind the closed doors of contract talks.
While Bigelow and other senior union local leaders will have a seat at the table, CUPE will, like it always has before, bring in their own professional negotiator, a seasoned professional within the union leadership who has done this many times. Why should the union get to bring in a bargaining specialist and not the city?
A more cynical eye, however, can easily find the city's hiring of a labour lawyer to lead its contract talks as a blatant opening salvo of a hardline bargaining position.
Will the city borrow a page from the provincial government, for example, and tell unionized staff that they will get no increases in pay or benefits unless the union can find an equal amount in cost savings, so the increase is neutral because it actually doesn't cost anything in real dollars?
Will the city try to divide the workers by offering an increase to members of one of the locals but not the other, or try to bring in tough wage rollbacks on all municipal staff?
With both sides set to meet by the end of next week to set ground rules for negotiations, it shouldn't take long to find out the city's bargaining position and the merits of bringing in a labour lawyer to do the talking.