Utility Workers Return to Work After Lockout
January 2, 2014
Members of Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 picketing utility FortisBC before the Dec.16 agreement to end the nearly six-month lockout.
The lockout that forced the 225 members of Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 out of their jobs at FortisBC is over after nearly six months.
On Dec. 16, the privately-owned utility and Local 213 agreed to enter binding arbitration. The agreement ends the lockout and the workers began returning to their jobs in generation, transmission and distribution within hours of the deal. Under the terms of the agreement, they have up to 10 days to return to work.
“This is more a relief than good news,” said Local 213 Business Manager Mike Flynn. “We’re happy to have them back at work. We’re not happy with how it came about, not being a negotiated settlement, but it’s all we had left.”
Proposals that kept wages flat and gave sole control of job classification to the subsidiary of Fortis, Inc., the largest investor-owned utility in Canada, were twice rejected by the membership . There was little common ground to be found during negotiations and talks stalled completely in October when a second attempt at mediation broke down on the first day.
Under the terms of the deal, each side will propose terms for a new five-year collective bargaining to an arbitrator who will write a final contract that automatically goes into effect. Flynn expects the new contract will be handed down in mid- to late January. Until then work will be done under the terms of the expired contract.
Flynn said the lockout has been devastating. Locked out workers are ineligible for unemployment benefits in British Columbia but he said the local was able to support picketers from a strike fund for the full six months.
“It doesn’t replace a paycheck, but it made a difference,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of how they did.”
Local 213 Business Representative Rod Russell was the local’s point man throughout the dispute. He said conditions on the picket were difficult. Managers often harassed the workers, telling them that they are easily replaceable and, in one incident, a manager physically assaulted a picketing worker.
But Russell said community support was phenomenal, with regular deliveries of coffee and doughnuts buoying spirits on the picket lines.
There was also tremendous solidarity from other unions, Flynn said, most notably the 25 members of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Local 378 who worked at FortisBC. In six months, no one from either COPE or the IBEW crossed the picket line, there were no arrests and there wasn’t even a citation for property damage.
“No one wins a labor dispute but their resolve has been inspiring. Despite some extraordinary provocations from management during the lockout, they were as professional as anyone could ask,” he said of Local 213 members.
Negotiations were contentious from the beginning. Despite clearing a $48 million (Canadian) profit in 2012 providing electricity to B.C.'s Southern Interior, FortisBC rejected the union’s proposal for a 3 percent wage increase and demanded exclusive control over job descriptions. Nevertheless, Flynn said he thought the distance was small and a deal was a reachable.
Then FortisBC walked away and refused to negotiate a deal. When members of Local 213 began strictly following the terms of an essential service order issued by the provincial labor board, which committed the union and the utility to maintain basic essential services, but allowed them to refuse work that didn't endanger the safety of the community like disconnections or capital projects, FortisBC locked them out.
Once the lockout began, FortisBC made additional concession demands, including unilateral power to impose compressed work weeks, which would have forced some members, especially single parents, to choose between child care responsibilities and keeping their jobs. They rejected counteroffers making compressed schedules voluntary or making exceptions for workers with family responsibilities.
The utility also demanded greater control of the system control center, the nerve center of the grid, requiring union members to train management to do their jobs. They said it was to ensure continuity of service in case of future labor disputes.
But Flynn said Canadian law already requires workers to stay on the job when they are essential to maintaining the electricity delivery. The demand seemed designed merely to provoke the workers.
“It made no sense, but this wasn’t ever about wages. It was about a callous, heavy-handed employer forcing concessions on disrespected and bullied workers,” he said.
Now that the dispute is over, though, Russell says he expects the same level of professionalism on the job that the membership displayed manning the picket.
“There is a lot of work to be done and emotions must be checked by all parties,” Russell said. “We are committed to building productive working relationships that work for the benefit of the customers. If we have a partner, the proof will be in the pudding.”