Representatives from Saint John, New Brunswick, Local 1524 and Saint John Energy posed for a photo recently after signing their latest bargaining agreement. Pictured, from left: Local 1524 Vice President Nick Wilson; Saint John Energy Manager of Shared Services Dave Horgan; Saint John Energy Executive Director of Finance, People, and Community Shelley Wood; Local 1524 Business Manager Colin Waugh; Saint John Energy Executive Director of Operations Ryan Shonaman; Saint John Energy President and CEO Ryan Mitchell.
Photo credit: Saint John Energy

A strong partnership has helped sustain the working relationship between Saint John, New Brunswick, Local 1524 and the city’s power company, Saint John Energy, for almost 80 years. And if the successful recent contract negotiations are any indication, that connection remains rock-solid.

“Working with Saint John Energy is a very trusting experience,” said Local 1524 Business Manager Colin Waugh. “Even though we’re support, we’ve always worked with the utility as a team.”

Local 1524’s power line, power system and meter technicians account for nearly a quarter of the city-owned utility’s 100 workers, said Waugh, a seven-year member who became business manager last fall. He is the son, great-grandson and nephew of IBEW journeyman linemen who also worked for the power distribution company.

Notably, a large portion of the utility’s management team has IBEW backgrounds, key reasons the labor-management relationship works as well as it does, in negotiations and on the job.

One such Local 1524 journeyman lineman who moved into management is Ryan Shonaman, who joined the IBEW 23 years ago and now oversees Saint John Energy’s line crews as executive director of operations.

“I worked with Colin’s dad,” said Shonaman, who has known Waugh since the business manager’s youth, “and Colin’s uncle was a really good mentor. It’s a fantastic company to work for.”

Shonaman’s father was a journeyman lineman, too, who retired as a Saint John Energy vice president. Following his father into line work made sense, and not just because it can be a solid, steady career. “You’re getting to do things you liked to do as a kid,” such as climbing up poles and working with trucks, he said with a laugh.

Saint John Energy was formed in 1922 as the Power Commission of the City of Saint John. Local 1524, though, wouldn’t be organized until 24 years later, partly because, as Shonaman learned, “we as a company did not recognize Dominion Day as a paid holiday.” (The July 1 holiday is now called Canada Day.)

“A group of people was being treated unfairly,” Shonaman said. “A classic reason to form a union.”

Rebranded as Saint John Energy in 1997, the city-owned utility maintains a grid that distributes electricity to more than 36,000 residential and commercial customers. It purchases 85% of its power from NB Power, whose workers are represented by Fredericton Local 37, and it boasts some of the highest reliability records and lowest utility rates in Canada.

More recently, that collaborative energy helped keep negotiations for the latest collective bargaining agreement in January to three days, Shonaman said. Also assisting with those talks was First District International Representative Ross Galbraith, a former Local 37 business manager who now works with all the locals in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, plus a session facilitator from the provincial government, who was impressed by the parties’ congeniality.

“She said, ‘You guys are working so well together,’” Shonaman said. “It was a collaborative, respectful process. I chalk that up to the level of trust we have with each other.”

Another thing that has helped sustain that trust, Waugh said, is that Local 1524’s leaders meet regularly with the utility’s management team.

“We don’t let small things become big things,” Shonaman added. “We work through them.”

Waugh said he has been working with IBEW organizers on ways to grow the local’s membership and strengthen ties with Saint John Energy. The growth potential is there: The utility recently brought online a 10-turbine, 42-megawatt wind farm and is planning for a two-way power grid that can handle customers’ generation of electricity via windmills and solar panels.

“Local 1524 is a great example of how, by building trust and bargaining with integrity, labor and management can work as partners for each other’s benefit and growth — for decades, even,” said First District International Vice President Russ Shewchuk. “When they do that, productive and motivated union workers gain access to good jobs, safe workplaces, and pay that accurately reflects their worth.”