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At a time when Manitoba Hydro is burdened with debt and has repeatedly sought consumer rate hikes above the rate of inflation, it continues to pay generous salaries and benefits of two union leaders.
The full-time president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 998, Michelle Bergen, who represents 900 clerical and technical workers at the Crown corporation, is receiving a salary of more than $90,000, plus benefits, courtesy of ratepayers.
Suzanne King, president of Unifor Local 681, which represents 300 gas workers and 100 meter readers, also has her full salary paid by the corporation. However, according to a letter of understanding between the company and the union, she is expected to work half-time hours for Hydro.
Bergen said the arrangement between CUPE and Hydro has existed for decades.
"It goes way back," she said in an abbreviated interview Friday.
Bergen, who has been president of her local for about a year, said she had "no comment," when asked about the appropriateness of her union receiving the financial benefit — especially at a time when Hydro's debt load is ballooning as it pays off the cost of the Keeyask generating station and a massive transmission line project.
Meanwhile, King said she doesn't see any problem with Hydro covering the union portion of her duties.
"We’re both party to making this company grow and be sustainable and to support Manitobans, and, in order to get that done, we need to sit down and discuss issues," she said.
King noted when the same workers were employed by Centra Gas, a private company, the employer paid 100 per cent of the salaries of a full-time union president and shop steward.
"They did pay the full salary because they felt it was the right thing to do to make the company run smoothly," she said.
Todd MacKay, Prairie director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it is "unreasonable" and "makes no sense" Hydro ratepayers should be stuck paying for union salaries. He called on the practice to end.
"Everybody should be paid by the people they work for. If you're a politician, your salary comes from the people. If you're a Hydro worker, your money should come from Hydro. If your job is providing union leadership, you should be paid by union members," he said.
The payment of the two salaries by Hydro calls to mind the controversy that erupted when it was discovered the City of Winnipeg had paid 100 per cent of Alex Forrest's salary and benefits — without reimbursement — when he became president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg in 1997. In 2014, the deal was renegotiated, with the city agreeing to pay 60 per cent of his salary.
Mayor Brian Bowman has vowed to scrap the arrangement with the union as soon as possible. The two sides aren't expected to begin bargaining on a new collective agreement until sometime next year.
Not all unions who represent Hydro workers have positions paid for by the Crown corporation.
"They do not pay our wages," said Mike Velie, assistant business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034, which bargains on behalf workers who generate and distribute power and maintain power lines.
Neither does the Association of Manitoba Hydro Staff and Supervisory Employees, according to a scan of its most recent contract.
A few years ago, Manitoba Hydro instituted a buyout program that resulted in more than 800 employees leaving the provincial utility.
"Everybody should be paid by the people they work for. If you're a politician, your salary comes from the people. If you're a Hydro worker, your money should come from Hydro. If your job is providing union leadership, you should be paid by union members." — Todd MacKay, Prairie director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation
In a late-day email, Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen confirmed the payments to the two union presidents, saying the CUPE deal has been in place for at least 15 years.
He said while Hydro does not pay for IBEW staff, the corporation provides "a subsidy to the IBEW of approximately $90,000, resulting from a commitment made at the bargaining table" — a claim Velie vehemently denied.
As for whether Hydro planned to end the practice of paying union president salaries, Owen would only say the contracts with both unions remain in force until the end of 2020.
"As Manitoba Hydro will develop its bargaining agenda later this year, it is premature to comment on specifics," he said.
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Updated on Friday, February 7, 2020 at 7:14 PM CST: Adds pullquote