Manitoba

Striking Hydro workers' union repeats call for Pallister to 'get out of the way' of contract negotiations

Members of a union that represents striking Manitoba Hydro workers gathered outside the legislature Monday morning to repeat accusations of government interference in the bargaining process with the Crown utility.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members voted to reject latest contract offer 2 weeks ago

Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers demonstrate outside the Manitoba Legislative Building on Monday, saying the Pallister government is interfering in the bargaining process with Manitoba Hydro. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Members of a union that represents striking Manitoba Hydro workers gathered outside the legislature Monday morning to repeat accusations of government interference in the bargaining process with the Crown utility.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union voted to reject the latest contract offer from Hydro and 2,300 members went on strike about two weeks ago. Some IBEW members went on strike as early as March 9.

IBEW's business manager says the Brian Pallister government is interfering with the process, although the premier says he is not.

"Unlike many other groups, we're not here to ask for money from our provincial government; we're not asking for a nickel from the budget," said Mike Espenell, a day ahead of the release of Manitoba's 2021-22 budget.

"We're simply asking for the premier and his cabinet to get out of the way and allow us to negotiate a fair contract with Manitoba Hydro, who has successfully operated for decades without the expertise of Mr. Pallister."

Espenell previously suggested every time IBEW has made a demand, Hydro officials have had to take the requests to cabinet for final approval and negotiations have stalled from there.

Hydro tabled a revised offer shortly after a March 17 deadline set by the union, staving off a general strike that had been set to start March 18, although rotating strikes by some workers had already started a week earlier.

Manitoba Hydro says the latest deal that IBEW members rejected in March was fair, and the Crown corporation continues to engage with the union. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The four-year deal, spanning 2019-22, proposed a zero per cent wage increase in the first two years. The second two years had increases of 0.75 per cent and one per cent, the union said.

The offer also included benefit improvements and an extension of a no-layoffs clause for the 2021-22 fiscal year, Hydro said.

"Manitoba Hydro believes the offer which the IBEW rejected is a fair one, given the current impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and our responsibility to keep rates as low as possible for our customers, many of whom are being disproportionally impacted by the pandemic," Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said in a statement Monday.

IBEW members voted overwhelmingly to reject the offer, and a general strike was officially called on March 23. That strike was initially slated to end days later but drags on.

Espenell has said the zero per cent wage increases resemble a government bill struck down as unconstitutional by the courts last year.

Bill 28 included a wage freeze for public sector workers for two years, but a Manitoba judge tossed the legislation in 2020, characterizing it as a "draconian measure" that violated associational rights and stymied the ability of unions to negotiate at the bargaining table.

IBEW has recommended binding arbitration, but says Hydro has refused.

Hydro spokesperson Owen says the Crown utility is committed to the collective bargaining process, and is still engaged with the union.

He says Hydro is also committed to maintaining services through the strike and has a contingency plan in place, though he notes response times may be longer than usual in some areas.

The last time IBEW went on strike was in 2009 and it lasted three days.

The Manitoba government is set to release its 2021-22 budget on Tuesday. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Government interference is fuelling the current strike and costing Manitobans millions of dollars, Espenell said.

"Pallister and this Conservative government have their wages set by an independent arbitrator," he said. "Our members deserve the same."

A spokesperson for the Crown services ministry called that comparison inaccurate.

The Manitoba commission on MLA compensation process has been in place since 2003. Despite commissioner recommendations, all government MLAs and ministers have turned down scheduled wage increases for four years, the spokesperson said.

"It is government's historic role to set broad and consistent collective bargaining mandates across the entire public sector, and it is taking a balanced approach during the unprecedented COVID-19 challenges," the spokesperson said in a statement. 

"Government continues to make massive expenditures for necessary public health and protection, and support for suffering Manitobans and businesses, while avoiding public sector layoffs and keeping taxes and rates as low as possible for all Manitobans." 

Owen says Hydro hasn't seen any loss of revenue domestically or through exports associated with the strike. However, the strike continues to impact Hydro financially, though Owen says the extent isn't yet clear.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He recently finished up a stint as a producer for CBC's Quirks & Quarks. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

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