In June, after Hydro Ottawa’s final contract offer ignored their safety concerns, members of Ontario’s Local 636 who work for the utility went on strike.

Editor’s note: The strike ended Sept. 18, after the affected Local 636 members voted to ratify a contract with the utility and after this story was published in the September edition of The Electrical Worker.

The nearly 400 IBEW members who work for electrical utility Hydro Ottawa went on strike against their employer June 28 after the utility’s final contract offer ignored their concerns about safety on the job. 

Hydro workers know all too well that failure to comply with strict industry requirements and safety standards could result in serious injury or loss of life,” said Domenic Murdaca, business manager of Local 636, chartered in Toronto but representing workers all over Ontario. “If employees do not trust the company to do the right thing, how can they trust the company to keep them safe?” 

Last year, the local reported sev­eral safety violations by Hydro Ottawa to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, including refusing to fulfill requests for basic protective gear and challenging shift workers’ need for adequate rest periods. But the problems continued, Murdaca said. 

For more than 30 years, Local 636 has represented Hydro Ottawa workers, keeping in good working order the power grid that serves Canada’s capital city region. “Our frontline staff there plays a key role in meeting the needs of the city and its residents every single day and night, no matter the weather,” Murdaca said. 

In recent years, Murdaca said, Local 636’s members have raced to restore power quickly to millions of Hydro Ottawa customers following major weather events such as tornadoeswinter storms and even a derecho in May 2022

They’ve done so as staffing gradually decreased: Five years ago, Hydro Ottawa employed 115 lineworkers, a figure that has dropped to 70 as vacated positions were left unfilled. Repair crews — including those working to restore power after storms and other weather emergencies — have been increasingly forced to work harder and for longer periods. 

The rest of Local 636’s 3,500 members work for nearly 60 employers, Murdaca said, and “none of those have had as many grievances filed against them as Hydro Ottawa.” 

The collective bargaining agreement between the local and the utility expired March 31, but its provisions remained in place as negotiations toward a replacement pact continued. Hydro Ottawa’s final offer May 25 didn’t just ignore Local 636’s safety concerns, but it also called for allowing the utility to start using nonunion contractors. 

A month later, 74% of voting bargaining-unit members voted to reject the offer, and the strike was on. 

On July 13 — just two weeks afterward — two tornadoes ripped through the southern Ottawa suburb of Barrhaven, cutting power to thousands of customers. The outages lasted longer than expected, Murdaca said, because the nonunion scabs Hydro Ottawa brought in to make repairs lacked Local 636 workers’ IBEW training and experience. Customers noticed the difference. 

“We want to help and get back to work, safely,” Murdaca said. “Strikes are an absolute last resort for workers when every reasonable effort to negotiate an agreement has failed, but we believe many people would agree that management’s contract offer was unfair.” 

Local 636 has other concerns with Hydro Ottawa, Murdaca said, including an increase in workplace negativity resulting from high supervisor turnover and chronic management understaffing. Some members also have complained about unfair work practices, wage freezes and an uneven distribution of benefits. 

As the strike wore on, it created complications for members of Ottawa Local 586 and Toronto Local 353 who routinely perform construction and maintenance work at Hydro Ottawa’s facilities. 

“It’s a fine line respecting the picket line,” said First District International Representative Bruce Harris, who services Local 636. “You have to speak with the strike captains, be cordial and follow the rules. In a perfect world, since this is IBEW members dealing with other IBEW members, our construction people would try to find work somewhere else during this time of labor unrest until it’s all settled. We’re making sure our members get that message and have respect.” 

Harris also has kept an eye on Hydro Ottawa’s scabs. “There’s an organizing opportunity there,” he said. 

For most of June, Hydro Ottawa negotiators refused to meet with Local 636 officials. But eventually, conversations and formal negotiations resumed, and Murdaca was optimistic that an agreement was within reach. 

“We’re at the table at least, but we’re still far apart,” he said, acknowledging the sacrifice that the striking workers were making. “We desperately want to get back to work — but the work must be safe, healthy and fair.” 

First District International Vice President Russ Shewchuk applauded Local 636 members’ resolve and encouraged all IBEW members to stand in solidarity with them. 

“These hard-working Local 636 members are making huge sacrifices in the name of worker safety,” Shewchuk said. “That Hydro Ottawa could use scabs during this stoppage reinforces the need for federal anti-scab legislation that strips away the unfair advantage that employers have during strikes.”