City employees could be lured away by private companies if the next collective agreement doesn't include wage increases, according to Canadian Union of Public Employees provincial president Mark Hancock.
"We know that the north is really starting to take off as far as work and as far as opportunities, and the city is going to have some retention issues in the next little while," Hancock said on Wednesday during a visit to Prince George. "There's a lot of skilled people who work for the city, both inside and outside and there are going to be offers of employment from other outside groups - we've seen that in other parts of the country where CUPE members are being poached by private industry."
The two CUPE locals representing city workers voted 93 per cent in favour of job action last month after rejecting the city's latest offer. The two sides haven't had meaningful negotiations since August and none are scheduled, but the city and union have been meeting to discuss which employees would be considered essential in the event of a strike or lockout.
Hancock understands the need for discussions around essential services, but said it's taking away from actual bargaining.
"This is time we could be sitting down with them, with a mediator or without a mediator, and come to some sort of agreement," he said. "It's not rocket science, it's collective bargaining. They're used to it, we're used to it, let's hammer it home."
Hancock said the Prince George locals are frustrated by the lack of progress and the last offer from the city which he characterized as "offering a number of zeros (per cent increase) and some money on the back end of the agreement."
"It's really clear from the workers' perspective, from our members' perspective, what the city is offering isn't good enough," Hancock said. "We need a fair collective agreement that includes a reasonable wage increase."
According to the union, this round of negotiations took on a different tone when the city decided to bring in Vancouver-based labour lawyer Adriana Wills to negotiate on its behalf. Hancock said Wills' presence at the bargaining table changes the dynamics because rather than dealing with a city manager who knows the ins and outs each city department, they're dealing with an outsider who needs to be briefed by staff on local issues.
"We have a had some really bad experiences with outside negotiators in different parts of the province, where an employer uses an outside employer as a buffer and causes us to take some kind of job action or be locked out by employers," Hancock said. "We'd rather just deal with the people that are going to have live with the collective agreement on both sides of the table and just come to an agreement that both sides will live with."
In addition to discussing the pressing issues surrounding negotiations with the city, Hancock will spend time meeting with other locals including CUPE employees in educational fields as well as paramedics.