Manitoba Hydro workers strike amid allegations of government interference in contract dispute

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Manitoba Hydro workers strike amid allegations of government interference in contract dispute


Frontline workers at Manitoba Hydro went on strike on Tuesday after contract negotiations with the crown corporation stalled again, which the union representing the workers alleges was the result of government interference.
Local 2034 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers informed Hydro on Tuesday morning that the 2,300 electricians it represents left work at 1:30 p.m. PT.

The strike is scheduled to last until 8 a.m. on Thursday, but it could last longer if the union and the company cannot make inroads soon, the IBEW business director said.

“We’re a little surprised to be at this point,” said Mike Espenell. “We are always ready to sit down and work to fix this problem, or we can continue with more action. ”

The strike does not apply to workers currently in a classroom or training center, or to staff in schools or attending Red River College or the University College of the North.

The news came hours after IBEW members – who represent most of Hydro’s field workers, such as power plant and transmission line workers – “overwhelmingly” rejected the latest contract offer from the company. Crown public service.

Mike Espenell, business manager for IBEW Local 2034, says Manitoba Hydro has rejected binding arbitration. (Jaison Empson / CBC)

Before the strike was made public, the IBEW said 94% of Local 2034 members voted on Hydro’s latest offer, and 88% rejected it.

The IBEW suggested binding arbitration in the negotiations, but Hydro refused, Espenell said.

Last week the IBEW turned the tide of a planned strike, although some workers have already started the strike. The pullback came after Hydro made a revised offer, after 28 months of negotiations; The IBEW wanted its members to review and vote on it.

The latest offer, a four-year 2019-22 deal, features a zero percent pay rise for the first two years, then 0.75 percent and one percent increases in the final two years, said the IBEW.

Worker alleges government interference

Manitoba Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen said the offer also included benefit enhancements and an extension of a no-layoff clause for fiscal year 2021-2022.

“We are evaluating what our next steps might be,” Owen said in a statement.

The proposal ignores the mandatory three days of unpaid leave taken by workers in 2020, which translates into a 1.25% loss in annual pay, Espenell said. When you factor that into the latest offer, he says the overall proposed salary increases would only result in a 0.5 percent increase.

Fleet technician Neil Wojciechowski, left, and other Manitoba Hydro workers picketed Taylor Avenue on Tuesday as a strike began. (John Einarson / CBC)

Neil Wojciechowski, who repairs and maintains Hydro vehicles as a fleet technician, was on the picket line on Taylor Avenue on Tuesday. He said the latest deal was not fair and would not keep up with the rate of inflation.

“As the costs of fuel, housing and groceries continue to rise, Manitoba Hydro has increased its rates several times and I am forced to accept a half per cent wage increase over a period of time. four years. It’s really sad, ”he said. “The government is interfering with our negotiations. ”

The union says Hydro’s offer looks like parts of the Pallister government’s proposed Utilities Sustainability Act, or Bill 28, which attempted to freeze public sector workers’ wages for two years.

A Manitoba judge rejected the law last summer, calling it “a drastic measure that has inhibited and significantly reduced the bargaining power of unions and violated the rights of associations.”

Espenell said during negotiations so far Hydro executives have had to refer the IBEW’s demands back to the government for approval.

“We had no idea of ​​the extent of interference during the negotiation process,” Espenell said. “It became more and more evident with each day. ”

NPD, first barbel in commerce

Prime Minister Brian Pallister said on Monday he was not getting involved in the contract dispute, despite asking Hydro to freeze wages for two years.

He accused NDP leader Wab Kinew of being reckless for siding with the IBEW, and he doubled down on that accusation again on Tuesday, saying Kinew could “encourage a prolonged work disruption”.

“I like to see the negotiations come to a satisfactory settlement at all times for the workers and management,” said Pallister. “I think it’s important to let these negotiations take place and not have interference. ”

Kinew said Pallister continued to push for a pay freeze, even though he was ruled unconstitutional by the courts, meaning he is choosing sides himself.

“We’re going to see impacts at Hydro, which should rightly be concerned right now by simply trying to keep the lights on for businesses across the province,” Kinew said, adding that two government bills could affect workers. .

He suggested that the government’s proposed Bill 16 – the Labor Relations Amendment Act – would remove binding arbitration, and Bill 35 – Taxpayer Protection and Regulatory Reform Act. utilities – would result in less transparency at Hydro.

The last strike by IBEW members dates back more than ten years. It lasted for several days.

Owen said Hydro has contingency plans in place to ensure Manitobans continue to get electricity during the strike.

Staff have been redeployed from other departments to help maintain services, although response times to a major weather event may be slower than usual, he said.

Frontline workers at Manitoba Hydro went on strike on Tuesday after contract negotiations with the crown corporation stalled again, which the union representing the workers alleges was the result of government interference. 1:45

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