Mayor’s cabinet backs essential-services talks with union
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The City of Winnipeg appears poised to return to the bargaining table with its largest union to prevent future job action from putting critical services at risk.
On Tuesday, the executive policy committee delayed a controversial proposal to seek provincial legislation that declares more categories of city workers essential, which would prevent a minimum number of them from going on strike. Instead, the committee delayed that vote for 90 days and directed city officials to return to negotiations with the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500 to create an essential services agreement, pending final council approval.
While Mayor Scott Gillingham initially supported the call to deem more city workers essential, he joined the rest of EPC to vote for the return to bargaining.
“If we can get an essential services framework put in place and agreed upon… I think that actually establishes a pretty good precedent for future rounds of negotiation… Ultimately, what I want to see is, for the sake of the people of Winnipeg, a set of services that are deemed essential, that are never in question and never in jeopardy,” he said.
Calls to ensure critical services continue throughout labour disputes have grown since 4,900 unionized city staff came within a few hours of a strike in October. No essential services agreement had been reached to keep critical workers in place.
At the time, multiple sources warned the absence of municipal employees would increase the risk of sewage spills, boil water advisories and delays in answering emergency calls. Water and waste staff, as well as some 911 operators, were included in the potential job action.
At Tuesday’s EPC meeting, a labour representative bluntly blamed city officials for failing to reach an essential services agreement with CUPE.
“Your administration had dropped a ball and let the city get to a brink of a strike with no essential services agreement… Frankly, the senior administration probably deserves to lose their jobs for that,” said Bernie Wood, a Manitoba representative for the Canadian Labour Congress.
Wood said seeking the province to designate more essential workers would violate bargaining rights and be fought “to the fullest extent of the law.”
The local head of CUPE also blamed city staff for the lack of an essential services agreement during the last round of bargaining.
“They never came to us until after we served strike notice… They dropped the ball,” said Gord Delbridge, president of CUPE Local 500, in an interview.
Delbridge told EPC members he’s ready to set up meetings immediately to negotiate the agreement.
The city’s top bureaucrat flatly denied allegations the city was late to act on essential services, stating email records show repeated attempts to reach an agreement began at least as early as last May.
Michael Jack, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the terms surrounding essential services must be determined early to prevent future threats to city services.
“Where the drinking water of three-quarters of a million people is at stake… To use that as a bargaining chip, that, in fact, isn’t within the realm of full and fair bargaining,” said Jack.
After the meeting, the CAO told media the city will try to secure a lasting agreement to define essential workers.
“We would be attempting to structure (the agreement) in a way that it ends up applying to every round of bargaining going froward, until the parties decide to change the arrangement,” said Jack.
During the EPC meeting, multiple councillors argued it would be better to reach a negotiated agreement than seek a provincially legislated one.
“We are the employer… And we don’t go running to the province every time that we need something… I would like to see us take a pause and go back (through) the public service to the (negotiating) table,” said Coun. Sherri Rollins, while raising a successful motion to do so.
The original proposal called for city council to ask the province for legislation that declares more city workers essential, suggesting that could extend to staff who provide building security, emergency repairs, technical support, snow clearing, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service 911 operations, water treatment, sewage treatment and flood control, among other tasks.
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.