Winnipeg, Manitoba, Local 2034 members are breathing easier since the end of their 9-week strike in May.
"Everybody can get back to normal," said Local 2034 Business Manager Mike Espenell. "It's been a long road and we're happy to be at an end that benefits everyone."
The roughly 2,300 members who work for Crown Corporation Manitoba Hydro have been dealing with an expired contract since the fall of 2018, and the province's anti-worker Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Brian Pallister has been interfering in the process, Espenell said, dragging it out and making it harder to reach an agreement. With this hurdle, plus the potential of new anti-union legislation on the horizon, Local 2034 members voted overwhelmingly to go on strike.
"Nobody ever wants to go on strike," Espenell said of the action that began in March and ended in May. "It was a difficult decision, and certainly not one we took lightly. But it was the right thing to do under the circumstances."
Local 2034 members do everything from generation and transmission to distribution, "soup-to-nuts," Espenell said. No one wanted to inconvenience their customers, but negotiations were stalling. Despite demand, the provincial utility was pushing for next-to-no real wage increases and layoffs. And in 2020, workers were mandated to take three unpaid days off, which translated to a loss of 1.25% in annual wages. When factored into Hydro's proposed offer, Espenell says the overall proposed wage increases would've only worked out to a 0.5% bump over four years.
"It's unprecedented to go on this long," Espenell said of the extended negotiations. "I can't think of anything like it for any public sector union in recent history."
This time it was all about cutting costs. The government's meddling made the process worse for Hydro employees. Among other actions, it mandated wage freezes for two years. Manitoba Hydro has also let staffing numbers dwindle, with hiring freezes across all areas for the last two years.
"We have a history of working collaboratively with Hydro," Espenell said. "But the government is handcuffing the whole process."
Following the end of the local's first strike in more than a decade, the terms of the new contract will be determined by the Manitoba Labour Board, a neutral third-party tasked with such cases. The hearing was set for July 7 and a decision is expected in early August.
The timing is crucial, says Espenell, since the labour board might not be around much longer. The PC government is expected to push for passage of Bill 16, the Labour Relations Amendment Act, which would essentially do away with the alternate dispute resolution that helps end strikes longer than 60 days. Without the option of appealing to the arbitration-like body when negotiations stall, unions could be left out to dry.
"They could dictate negotiations without ever being at the bargaining table," Espenell said. "The bill allows the government to puppet the public sector however they want, pulling even more strings."
Under the current government, Espenell says it's practically a foregone conclusion that the bill will pass. That was a factor when members cast their votes to strike. They needed to act while the Labour Board was still an option. And with the success of their strike, which was done on a rolling basis to alleviate customer inconvenience as much as possible, other public sector unions are taking note.
"The nurses and other groups can see the writing on the wall too, and they want to do all they can before that door closes," Espenell said. "It's not that anybody wants to go on strike. We just want more agreements."
Bill 16 isn't the PC government's only attack on unions. In 2017, the governing party introduced legislation that would have mandated a two-year wage freeze for government employees once their existing contracts expired, but the court threw it out in 2020, calling it a "draconian measure" that would greatly inhibit a union's bargaining power.
"Our members at Manitoba Hydro are among the best in the business and they deserve a fair contract," said First District International Vice President Tom Reid. "Striking is never an easy choice, but as they demonstrated, sometimes it's the necessary course of action. I'm proud of our brothers and sisters for standing up and making the hard decision to do what was right."