CUPE warns city it will fight any effort to diminish bargaining position
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The leader of the City of Winnipeg’s largest union is urging the municipal government to tread carefully amid a call to designate more of its workers as essential staff.
“If they’re trying to (weaken) our bargaining position so that they can have the upper hand, of course, we’re not going to allow that to happen. I hope that’s not their position,” said Gord Delbridge, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500.
A city report calls for council to seek provincial legislation that ensures employee positions that impact “life, limb, critical infrastructure, personal safety, public safety and public health” be deemed essential.
This would ensure a limited number of staff continue to deliver those critical services during a labour dispute, a city report notes, instead of going on strike.
The measure is already in place for Winnipeg police officers, firefighters and paramedics.
During the lead-up to a potential strike in October 2022, the city and CUPE failed to agree to an essential services agreement to keep key critical workers in place. Multiple sources said the job action without that agreement threatened to increase the risk of sewage spills, boil water advisories, and delays in answering emergency calls, since water and waste staff and 911 operators were included in the potential job action.
The strike was averted with about four hours to spare — the city and union blamed the other for the risk.
The new report suggests the city ask the province for legislation that ensures key services can continue, which could include: building security, emergency repairs and maintenance; city governance; financial processes; technical support for critical systems; emergency road and bridge repair; traffic management/barricading; snow clearing; Transit Plus support services; Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service 911 operations centre; water treatment and distribution; sewage collection and treatment; and land drainage and flood control.
Delbridge stressed CUPE is always willing to negotiate an essential services agreement during each round of labour talks.
“Many of the services that are offered by CUPE members to the citizens of Winnipeg are critical services and we take that seriously,” he said. “We’re always willing to negotiate the terms of an essential services agreement.”
However, he said essential services workers typically have the right to go to binding arbitration with labour disputes.
“If the city feels they are being fair and reasonable in bargaining, they’d be open to presenting that before an arbitrator… and allow them to make a binding decision.”
The city report notes labour disputes would be referred to a mediator selected by both parties for a resolution before a work stoppage could occur.
In an emailed statement, city spokeswoman Tamara Forlanski added: “The city is not seeking binding arbitration as way to resolve a collective bargaining impasse.”
Mayor Scott Gillingham said he supports the call to expand the categories of employees deemed essential.
“I ultimately believe that there is a set of services that must always be operating at the City of Winnipeg… We can’t risk contaminated water because someone has walked off the job or taken strike action. The people of Winnipeg, I believe, need to be protected through ensuring that a set of essential services are established, identified and codified,” he said.
However, one city councillor fears the proposed changes could violate collective bargaining rights, if council approves the motion as is.
Coun. Brian Mayes said seeking a permanent provincial decision to deem more staff as essential service providers who can’t strike, instead of leaving the matter up to individual labour talks, is too “heavy-handed.”
“I agree there should be a requirement for an essential services agreement but the content of that agreement should be negotiated between the parties,” said Mayes.
The councillor said he will seek to amend the recommendation to ensure the city negotiates the terms of the changes and also commits not to bring in outside replacement workers.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.