Strike deadline looms for public sector IT workers

March 31, 2004 marks the last day the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE) has to negotiate contracts before some 15,000 provincial government workers — including some IT employees — go on strike.

The NAPE Web site said the workers are currently covered by 11 separate contracts with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador and are involved in coordinated bargaining with the province. “Core issues such as wages will be negotiated across all groups, while issues specific to individual groups will be negotiated separately,” according to information on the NAPE site. Some 3,500 CUPE members whose contracts expire on the same day are also involved in this round of bargaining.

The NAPE site said both NAPE and CUPE members intend to “withdraw their labour” on April 1, “should the negotiation process have failed to deliver acceptable contracts.”

Judy Snow, NAPE spokesperson, confirmed that the strike will include “non-management IT people” such as programmers, analysts and support, “in direct government (covered by the General Service contract), health care, the College of the North Atlantic, and secondary school boards, at least.” She said that at press time, she had no way of telling IT World Canada how many individuals would be affected.

According to NAPE, back in June of last year it told the provincial government it wanted to begin negotiations on behalf of 10 groups on Oct. 1, 2003, and the government agreed. The 11th group, Health Professionals, was still negotiating its current contract. On Oct. 21, a new provincial government came into power — the Progressive Conservatives — and on Nov. 18, NAPE asked the new government to honour the prior Liberal government’s commitment to begin negotiations.

According to NAPE, the new government’s “first response to NAPE” was a televised address by Premier Danny Williams on January 5, 2004. In his speech the premier explained that the government had hired an independent external firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to review the province’s finances and assess financial challenges for the coming years.

“The news is not good,” Williams said in his address, adding that the “consultants reported that the total deficit is $827.5 million — $161 million over budget” for the fiscal year 2003-04.

Williams said PWC’s review “indicated that public sector wages, benefits and pensions represent approximately 52 per cent of the entire provincial budget” and that the last round of negotiations added approximately $350 million to the government’s annual salary bill.

“Therefore, one of the messages we will be bringing to the unions is that there is no money available for salary increases at this time,” the Premier said. “We have already conveyed this message to the union leaders earlier today, and I am giving to all of our public service the benefit of knowing this situation at the earliest available opportunity rather than in the last stages of an extended negotiation.”

The Premier also said the province would continue with the hiring freeze that Minister of Finance and President of Treasury Board Loyola Sullivan implemented soon after he was sworn in, “to ensure that every vacant position is thoroughly examined before being filled.”

Meanwhile, NAPE said it would seek a 21 per cent wage increase over three years. According to the NAPE Web site, the organization “picked 21 per cent as an opening position.” It stated that between 1990 and 2003, the provincial Consumer Price Index went up 37 per cent, while NAPE members’ wages went up only 22 per cent. “Thus 15 per cent is needed just to catch up,” while the additional six per cent would go toward offsetting the effects of inflation over the duration of a three-year contract, NAPE said.

“The premier has further compounded his error by announcing that he was prepared to let NAPE and CUPE choose between a wage increase and 2,000 layoffs,” the NAPE Web site claimed.

On Jan. 15, all groups applied for conciliation, but since they made no progress on key issues, NAPE broke off negotiations and began conducting strike votes for its public sector members on Feb. 15, which were completed on March 19.

According to a statement from NAPE, some 16,000 members were eligible to vote. “Overall, 91 per cent of the members who voted indicated they were willing to strike, with votes for individual contract groups ranging from 98 per cent (two groups) to 81 per cent,” the statement said.

At press time, Snow said NAPE was “unsure whether or not our new premier is prepared to send 20,000 people to the street in the largest strike in the province’s history.”

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