Manitoba

Manitoba Hydro front-line worker union serves utility with 48 hour strike notice

The union representing Manitoba Hydro's field employees has served the utility with a 48-hour strike notice if they can't reach a fair agreement with the Crown corporation. 

IBEW Local 2034 members grant strike mandate, but union says it will exhaust other measures first

Some front-line employees at Manitoba Hydro have given the union the permission to strike. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

The union representing Manitoba Hydro's field employees says its members could strike in 48 hours if they can't reach a fair agreement with the Crown corporation.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 — which represents Hydro's front-line employees such as workers at generating stations and on transmission lines — provided the utility with a 48-hour strike notification on Sunday. 

"This notice to the corporation does not take our members out. It does, however, indicate to the corporation that we have now fulfilled the legal requirements needed to call a strike," the memo said.

"Should strike action become necessary, [Manitoba Hydro] will only receive two hours notice before labour action begins."

The union members voted in favour of a strike mandate, according to an internal union memo on Wednesday. 

Mike Espenell, IBEW Local 2034 business manager, said the union has been in negotiations with the employer for roughly 28 months now "without any real, meaningful forward progress."

Espenell said some of the sticking points for workers have been guarantees for pensions, reassurances there won't be layoffs and increases in benefits over time.

The mandate gives the union permission to strike, but the union assured members it would "exhaust every possible means of attaining a fair agreement and will do its utmost to avoid invoking a strike," Wednesday's union memo said.

"We're always willing to sit down with the employer ... [but] to this point, it's just been very, very difficult," Espenell said.

"We're just out of options at this point."

The almost 2,300 workers represented by IBEW Local 2034 have worked without a contract with Manitoba Hydro since 2018.

Espenell said the utility's front-line workers have had to make sacrifices during the pandemic, with some isolated at work sites for up to a month without seeing their families because of public health rules.

Business manager Mike Espenell of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 says the union has been in negotiations with Manitoba Hydro for years and is now 'out of options.' (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"We've had people have to change their schedules and their lives and be away from their families for significant periods of time," he said.

"I think a lot of them are feeling just, I don't know if undervalued, but it's just been a long, lengthy process.... [Everyone] wants to see this [get] to some form of conclusion."

Manitoba Hydro has not responded to a request for comment from CBC News.

Province tried to freeze wages

The Opposition New Democrats have accused the government of trying to interfere in their negotiations. 

In the fall, the province asked Hydro to freeze the wages of IBEW employees for two years. The government said the "reset" is necessary while it copes with "dramatically falling revenues" and a "very large deficit" anticipated for 2020-21, owing to the pandemic.

The government defended itself by stating it is within their purview to set bargaining mandates for the public sector.

At the time, Espenell said the government's proposal was a "difficult pill to swallow," since union members took three unpaid days off to avoid temporary layoffs for some members early in the pandemic.

The wage freeze request comes despite a court decision last summer that struck down government legislation that sought to keep wages the same for more than 100,000 public sector workers for two years. The province is appealing the decision. 

IBEW is the largest bargaining unit for employees at Hydro.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Holly Caruk

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