The City of Winnipeg wants to train hundreds of unionized managers to replace members of its largest union in the event of a summer strike by the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500.

But the Winnipeg Association of Public Service Officers, which represents managers and professionals, is fighting the city's right to ask its members to serve as strike replacements and is telling its workers not to comply.

CUPE 500, which represents 5,070 city workers, has been negotiating a new contract with the city since its last collective bargaining agreement expired on Christmas Eve. Talks between the two sides have been strained, with each accusing the other of bargaining in bad faith.

On June 7, CUPE will vote on what president Gord Delbridge describes as a final contract offer from the city. He said he does not expect the offer to be accepted and a rejection would give his union a strike mandate.

To prepare for a strike, the city is hoping to redeploy or reassign hundreds of managers, including the unionized WAPSO professionals and middle managers, said Winnipeg chief corporate services officer Michael Jack.

"Undoubtedly if there is a strike by CUPE, there will be service impacts. There simply have to be. What we are preparing for is ensuring that the most essential services will continue, that Winnipeggers are protected in terms of life safety, property protection," Jack told reporters at city hall.

"That's a process that we've been on for months now in terms of service continuity and strike preparedness."

Michael Jack

Winnipeg chief corporate services officer says the city must prepare to avoid service disruptions during a CUPE 500 strike. (Jules Runne/CBC)

Coincidentally, WAPSO and the city are in arbitration today over a union grievance over the city's right to ask unionized managers to replace CUPE workers, said WAPSO president Michael Robinson.

Regardless of how that arbitration goes, the city does not have the right to force WAPSO members to serve as strike replacements. WAPSO has already advised its members not to volunteer to work as replacement workers.

The city also tried to reassign a unionized firefighter to train to work in the 911 dispatch centre in place of a CUPE 500 member in the event of a strike, United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said.

"We had a very serious incident occur just a few minutes ago where one of our members [was] assigned to 911 dispatch for communications training so that he could be used in case of CUPE dispatchers going on strike," Forrest wrote on his Facebook page Thursday morning.

"I immediately called dispatch and the administration and advised them that under no circumstances will United Firefighters of Winnipeg members be doing any work of any CUPE member if a strike occurs."

Alex Forrest

Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said one of his members was reassigned to the 911 dispatch centre to train to replace a CUPE 500 employee in the event of a strike. (CBC)

Jack said the worker in question was receiving regular training and denied this was an attempt to use UFFW members to replace CUPE workers. He said the reassignment was cancelled regardless.

Forrest said he believes the city was trying to send a message to 911 dispatchers.

"One thing I think the city is finding out very quickly is that CUPE is involved in running almost every aspect of the city, including the emergency services. So they're realizing that if CUPE goes on strike it will be absolutely devastating for many services," Forrest said.

Jack said the city must ensure water, sewer and other essential services are not disrupted in the event of a strike. He also identified the Canada Summer Games, which will bring 20,000 visitors to Winnipeg in July, as an essential service.

He denied the city has given CUPE 500 a final offer and said the union walked away from negotiations.

Delbridge dismissed this as misinformation.

"They initially told us it was a final offer," the CUPE president said in a telephone interview from Ottawa. "We are taking it to our members because I think it's important they get information about where we are at this time."

Delbridge said CUPE has "every intent of coming back to the table" even if the union receives a strike mandate. Jack said the city is committed to a negotiated settlement, too.

The union president said this will require the city to drop 200 pages of demands for concessions from CUPE 500.

"I think that if the city doesn't change its course, they will invoke a strike," he said.

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