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July 2012

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Flash Mobs and YouTube:
Creative Tactics Win Fair Contract for Manitoba Local

In June, Manitoba Hydro workers overwhelmingly approved one of their strongest contracts in recent memory, winning some long sought after changes, including a comparative wage survey of utility workers throughout Western Canada and an 8 percent wage increase over the life of the four-year contract.

Winnipeg Local 2034 Business Manager Mike Velie credits the local's bargaining success to Local 2034's willingness to expand its collective bargaining tool kit and experiment with new contract campaigning strategies — from flash mobs to YouTube.

"We tried out stuff we've never done before, and it paid off," says Velie, who represents more than 3,000 Manitoba Hydro workers.

Bargaining with the Crown corporation began last September. The local put in a lot of preparation beforehand, surveying the membership and following it up with in-person meetings with stewards — no mean feat in a province the approximate size of the United States' Northeast.

"We wanted to make sure the surveys accurately reflected our members' concerns," Velie says.

One of the top issues, says Velie, was pay. Manitoba Hydro workers' wages lagged behind those of their counterparts in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and they wanted the company to do an official survey of utility pay rates to prove it.

Negotiations soon hit a wall, however. But instead of calling a strike vote, the local decided to get creative.

In February, after watching a news story about a Manitoba Hydro-sponsored flash mob meant to promote physical fitness, the negotiating committee got an idea for one of its own. (A flash mob is a quickly assembled group of people — usually organized through social media channels — who come together for entertainment purposes or to raise awareness about an issue.)

Local 2034 got the word out to members in the Winnipeg area to gather in the lobby of the company's main office for an impromptu "flash" rally during their lunch hour to pressure the utility to return to the bargaining table. The local posted photos of the event on its Facebook and Twitter pages.

"It got their attention fast," Velie says. "It worked because the members turned out."

The local also tapped into the power of YouTube — the popular Internet video network — to pressure the utility and clear up misinformation.

Some of the managerial staff had been telling non-IBEW employees they would be required to perform striking IBEW members' jobs, even though provincial labour law made it clear that this was not the case.

"The company couldn't force any of its employees to scab," says Velie. To get the word out, the local posted four videos about it on its YouTube channel and the message quickly spread.

Soon thereafter, the company sent a letter to all its supervisory employees, informing them that they in fact didn't have to do the work of strikers.

The strength of YouTube, Velie says, is the ability of any video to go viral, giving the local in effect a global megaphone for bargaining.

"It wasn't the greatest publicity for the company to be called out in this way, and it forced them to change their approach," he says.

On April 18, with the help of a government appointed conciliator, the local reached a tentative agreement with Manitoba Hydro — all without ever calling a strike vote.

Local 2034 also won a commitment from the company to give union leaders access to workers during company time to fully explain the agreement before the ballots were mailed.

"Only 26 percent of our members voted on the last contract, so we wanted to make sure everyone was fully informed and ready to vote," Velie says. Votes were tallied June 4.

"Tough situations require outside-the-box thinking and a willingness to engage with the latest technologies and learn from others' successes," says First District Vice President Phil Flemming.


Winnipeg Local 2034 Business Manager Mike Velie on the local's YouTube channel