Manitoba Hydro workers strike amid allegations of government meddling in contract dispute
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members voted 'overwhelmingly' to reject latest contract
Front-line Manitoba Hydro workers went on strike Tuesday after contract negotiations with the Crown corporation stalled again, in what the union that represents the workers alleges is the result of government meddling.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 notified Hydro Tuesday morning that the 2,300 electrical workers it represents walked off the job at 1:30 p.m. CT.
The strike is planned to last until Thursday at 8 a.m. CT, but it could last longer if the union and corporation can't make inroads soon, said IBEW's business manager.
"We are a little bit surprised we're at this point," Mike Espenell said. "We're always open to sitting down and working on settling this, or we can continue with more action."
The strike doesn't apply to workers currently in a classroom or training centre, or staff in schools or attending Red River College or University College of the North.
The news came hours after members of IBEW — which represents most of Hydro's field employees, such as workers at generating stations and on transmission lines — "overwhelmingly" rejected the Crown utility's latest contract offer.
Before the strike was made public, IBEW said 94 per cent of the Local 2034 members cast votes on the latest Hydro offer, with 88 per cent rejecting it.
IBEW has suggested binding arbitration in negotiations but Hydro has refused, said Espenell.
Last week, IBEW reversed course on a planned strike, though some workers had already begun striking. The pullback happened after Hydro made a revised offer, following 28 months of negotiations; IBEW wanted its members to review and vote on it.
The latest offer, a four-year deal from 2019-22, proposes a zero per cent wage increase in the first two years, then increases of 0.75 per cent and one per cent in the last two years, IBEW said.
Worker alleges government interference
Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said the offer also included benefit improvements and an extension of a no-layoff clause for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
"We're assessing what our next steps might be," Owen said in a statement.
The proposal doesn't account for three mandated unpaid days off work taken by workers in 2020, which translates to a loss of 1.25 per cent in annual wages, Espenell said. When you factor that into the latest offer, he says overall proposed wage increases would only work out to a 0.5 per cent bump.
Neil Wojciechowski, who repairs and maintains Hydro vehicles as a fleet technician, was on the picket line on Taylor Avenue Tuesday. He said the latest deal isn't fair and wouldn't keep up with the rate of inflation.
"As costs of fuel, housing, groceries continue to increase, Manitoba Hydro has increased their rates several times and I am being forced to take a half per cent wage increase in a four-year term. Pretty sad," he said. "The government is interfering with our negotiations."
The union says the offer made by Hydro resembles parts of the Pallister government's proposed Public Services Sustainability Act, or Bill 28, which tried to freeze public sector workers' wages for two years.
A Manitoba judge tossed that legislation last summer, calling it "a draconian measure that has inhibited and dramatically reduced the unions' bargaining power and violates associational rights."
Espenell said in negotiations so far, Hydro executives have had to take IBEW requests back to government for approval.
"We had no idea how much interference there was through the negotiating process," said Espenell. "It's become more and more evident with every day."
NDP, premier trade barbs
On Monday, Premier Brian Pallister said he is not meddling 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 IBEW, and he doubled down on that accusation again on Tuesday, saying Kinew could be "encouraging a prolonged situation of labour disruption."
"I like to see negotiations result in a settlement that's satisfactory to the workers and to the management at any time," Pallister said. "I think it's important to let those negotiations take place and not have interference."
Kinew said Pallister is continuing to push for a wage freeze, even though it was struck down as unconstitutional by the courts, which means he's choosing a side himself.
"We're going to see impacts at Hydro, which should be rightly concerned right now with just trying to keep the lights on for businesses across the province," Kinew said, adding two pieces of proposed government legislation could affect workers.
He suggested the government's proposed Bill 16 — the Labour Relations Amendment Act — would remove binding arbitration, and Bill 35 — The Public Utilities Ratepayer Protection and Regulatory Reform Act — would result in less transparency at Hydro.
The last time IBEW members went on strike was over a decade ago. That lasted several days.
Owen said Hydro has contingency plans in place to ensure Manitobans continue to get electricity through the strike.
Staff have been redeployed from other departments to help maintain services, although response times in the event of a major weather event may be slower than usual, he said.
With files from Ian Froese and Samantha Samson