Some front-line Manitoba Hydro workers begin striking Tuesday afternoon

Manitoba Hydro says some of its front-line workers walked out of the job and began a strike on Tuesday afternoon.

Crown corporation offered 3-year contract to union members including 0.75% wage increase in 3rd year

The union members voted in favour of a strike mandate, according to an internal union memo on Wednesday. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Manitoba Hydro says some of its front-line workers walked out of the job and began a strike on Tuesday afternoon.

The Crown corporation says it tabled a formal offer to the the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034, which represents 2,300 workers, in the hopes of successfully concluding contract negotiations, but it was rejected.

The offer followed 28 months of negotiations, most recently with the help of a conciliator, while abiding by the financial mandates provided to Manitoba Hydro by the provincial government, the utility said.

In an internal email to union members, IBEW said the withdrawal of services will be in place until 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, or unless notified otherwise.

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen says there is a plan in place to ensure lights stay on.

The public utility has developed and implemented contingency plans to help ensure emergency and essential services, as well as public safety, are maintained throughout any labour disruption.

However, because there's a major storm going through western Manitoba and that could cause major power outages, Mike Espenell, IBEW Local 2034 business manager, says the union will not pull emergency restoration services during the time.

Business manager Mike Espenell of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 says emergency hydro restoration won't be impacted during the strike (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Manitoba Hydro says it offered IBEW members a three-year contract with a 0.75 per cent wage increase in the third year retroactive to Jan. 1, 2021.

The contract promised that no IBEW employee would be subject to layoff should their position be eliminated as a direct result of the contracting out of the work normally performed by that employee for the fiscal year ending March 2022.

It also promised a one-time allocation of 80 hours to sick leave balances for IBEW front-line workers who worked at least 30 per cent of their time in the field in the last fiscal year, in light of the impact of COVID-19.

Forced pay cut last year

Espenell said members were required to take a 1.25 per cent pay cut last year.

"We're the only front-line workers that have been required to take a rollback. Other groups certainly recently have achieved stiff ends and things of that nature. But for the most part, we're just looking for parity with some of the other groups."

On Sunday, 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 union represents Hydro's front-line employees such as workers at generating stations and on transmission lines. It provided the utility with a 48-hour strike notification on Sunday. 

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

Espenell said striking employees will be outside three different Manitoba Hydro buildings Wednesday.

Province ordered wage freezes

Manitoba Hydro says it's been negotiating with the union for months, while abiding by the financial mandates provided to the utility by the provincial government. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

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

The government said it is within their purview to set bargaining mandates for the public sector.

At the time, Espenell slammed the government's proposal, since union members took three unpaid days off to avoid temporary layoffs for some members early on 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 that decision. 

The last time Manitoba Hydro employees went on strike was in more than 10 years ago.

In October of 2009, IBEW members were on strike for a week after negotiations broke down. The employees were seeking higher salaries and a shorter contract term.

IBEW is the largest bargaining unit for employees at Hydro.

With files from Ian Froese