Changing Technology Opens
New Horizons in Saskatchewan
April 15, 2014
|Igor Gil, one of the 150 smart meter replacement technicians working for GridOne and SaskPower that were successfully organized by Regina, Sask., Local 2067
Automated electricity meters have been a double-whammy for many locals. Meter reader jobs disappear and the replacement work has proven extremely resistant to organizing on both sides of the border.
Regina, Sask., Local 2067 broke through that model and brought in 150 meter replacement workers, improving safety training, wages and benefits and career opportunities for the new members. Local 2067 Business Manager Neil Collins said:
Something like 95 percent of all meter replacement has been nonunion, so we are extremely proud that this will be our work. Most importantly, the men and women doing it will be properly trained and supported so the job gets done safely.
The new members will replace the traditional energy meters with automated ones across the service area of Saskatchewan Power. The job is expected to take two to three years.
More than 1,500 Local 2067 members already work at Saskpower, but when the company decided to update the meters, it signed with GridOne, a nonunion contractor that was going to hire unqualified electrical workers to do the work. Collins said:
When a meter is removed, it exposes a live 250-volt, 300-amp connection which, under provincial law, only trained electrical workers can work on.
Saskpower needed an exemption from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Workplace Safety, an exemption they had granted to Saskatoon Light and Power and companies in Alberta and British Columbia had received similar exemptions from their provincial authorities. In Alberta, for example, meter replacement workers were contracted six months at a time, paid by the piece, had no benefits and supervisors had no electrical training. First District Regional Organizing Coordinator Darrell Taylor said:
One supervisor I spoke to said he was normally a truck driver. They were sending them out, mostly young people, with no one looking out for their safety, and there wasn’t much we could do. It was almost impossible to even find them.
Local 2067 fought the exemption request. Collins said:
From the company’s perspective, it isn’t dangerous because untrained workers have done it in other places, but we had serious reservations about the potential for injury or property damage and the lack of qualified supervision. They didn’t even have emergency plans in place. Unfortunately, it is difficult to make the case when so many meters have been replaced by non-experts.
Despite the safety concerns, the exemption was issued in late 2013 and Local 2067 appealed, but Saskpower moved forward with GridOne, a division of Asplundh, the international tree-trimming conglomerate.
However, as work was about to get underway, some electricians working at GridOne filed a petition to organize with the provincial labor relations board. It was accepted, and they began investigating who might be eligible for the bargaining unit. Collins said:
The project looked like it would be held up by either the LRB application or our appeal. Despite this disagreement, we have a good relationship with Saskpower, so the company came to us to see if we could find a solution that would protect the workers and keep the job moving forward.
After only four days of discussions, a deal was announced March 1 that brought the meter replacement workers into Local 2067, beefed up safety training and increased wages and benefits. The local also negotiated time to explain to the new members the benefits they will receive, including more time off, higher wages, medical and dental benefits and the ability to apply for jobs internally at Saskpower.
Taylor says the agreement also gives organizers a tool to go after this work in other parts of Canada. He said:
It is really wonderful that these new members get a taste of union work, and the wages and benefits that come with it. We just want every one doing electrical work to get the same chance.
Saskatchewan Crown Corporation Workers Unite for Fair Contract