Les Leyne: Ferries labour deal means deeper cuts

Was it an investment in labour peace or a missed opportunity?

An observer with a close-hand view of the financial dilemma facing B.C. Ferries is opting for the latter description. He's applying it to the collective agreement the corporation signed with unionized staff in February.

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The deal effectively shields the system's workforce from a good deal of the pain that is going to be shared around when the government eventually acts on the service-reduction plan that will be hammered out once the public consultations are done.

There's a sum of $26 million that has to be carved out of the budget and nearly every player in the game has taken a hit, or will eventually. Passengers on the smaller routes will most certainly notice fewer sailings. The corporation has shed millions in administration and headquarters costs. The government has been forced to ante up a lot more money than it would like. Casual employees will notice, if they haven't already, less work available.

But when it comes to full-time unionized staff, there's nothing much planned that would lead to reduced labour costs. And labour costs make up the single biggest portion of the corporation's budget.

The analyst prefers anonymity at this point. He's worked up a breakdown that focuses on the collective agreement that was signed in February 2012.

It extends the lengthy period of labour peace that started when the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers Union signed a remarkably long contract with the newly constituted ferry company in 2003, after a heated showdown.

The February deal extends it another three years to 2015, with a 6.25 per cent wage hike. The deal is done, and it's unlikely to be re-opened. So the alternative scenario is largely academic. But the observer wonders why B.C. Ferries - which was in as much financial trouble then as it is now - didn't negotiate some concessions to save costs. Split shifts or permanent part-time designations would have allowed for more labour savings in shorter operational days on some routes.

The big round of consultation now is focused on reducing sailings. But there isn't much in the way of labour savings from any reductions in the schedule.

Some casual time will be reduced and some built-in overtime may be saved. But many crews will be paid the same amount regardless of the number of sailings. Time formerly spent on runs may be used for safety training or other purposes.

One problem with the service-reduction plans being kicked around is that the runs at the beginning and end of the day are the ones likely targeted, and those are usually the most popular and necessary ones. If islanders have to lose service, it's the midday runs during slack periods that would be preferable. But the labour contract would have to be rewritten to allow for such schedules, and that doesn't look to be in the cards.

The corporation declared the new contract a win, describing it as "stability for employees and certainty for our customers."

But the certainty for customers only relates to the fact the system will keep running without a major labour showdown. The actual levels of service on each route are very much up in the air. The situation now is a lot more stable for employees than it is for customers.

The analysis by the interested observer makes a case that service reductions don't save nearly as much money as they would if labour costs were saved, along with fuel and supplies. The related point is that therefore, far more round-trips have to be cancelled.

Of course, there was a rationale for signing the deal that protects employees from most of the cuts coming. It was the threat of another round of labour strife, which used to be a fairly regular event. The deal was signed a full 10 months before the contract's expiration date, which shows a certain enthusiasm on both sides.

And the wage hike was justified. Employees had gone two years with zero raises, like nearly everyone else in the public realm.

Other observers acknowledge some labour savings were left on the table when the deal was signed. But the potential for more trouble on top of the trouble the system already has was a real risk.

They averted that risk, but the downside is that cuts will be deeper than they would have been if all costs were on the table.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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