With the Olympics past, B.C. now turns its attention to the task of bargaining with 200,000 public sector employees whose collective agreements will expire within the next nine months.

About 180 public sector agreements, excluding nurses, physicians and K-12 teachers, will expire between March 31 and Dec. 31 of this year.

“It’s a difficult round of bargaining,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

“The public sector employees understand that the economy is struggling. But at the end of the day, they also know that if they don’t stand up for themselves, no one else will.”

For the province, it’s the largest round of bargaining since 2006, when then Finance Minister Carole Taylor used a $1-billion signing bonus and incentives to reach four-year agreements that ensured labour peace through the Olympics.

This time around, however, the government, which forecasts a 2010 budget deficit of $2.8 billion, enters negotiations with a “net-zero” mandate. It is seeking two-year terms with no net increase in compensation (although compensation trade-offs are possible).

The province has already made some headway, reaching agreements that cover about 70,000 workers.

On Tuesday, 17,000 community health workers ratified a two-year deal with no net wage and benefit increase. The province also has tentative deals with 47,000 health facilities employees and 1,400 professional staff.