Opinion

The decision this week by 2,300 Manitoba Hydro workers to go on strike is hardly surprising.

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This article was published 10/3/2021 (315 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The decision this week by 2,300 Manitoba Hydro workers to go on strike is hardly surprising.

Given the profuse serving of tough love that has been dished out over the last few years, it would have been shocking if they had stayed on the job.

The workers who maintain Hydro’s power transmission and distribution systems have been without a contract since 2018. Last year, they had to absorb three unpaid days off after the Progressive Conservative government demanded the Crown corporation trim operating costs.

On the heels of all that, the offer presented to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 would seem — even to skeptics of the collective bargaining approach — to be almost punitive.

Along with a few non-monetary concessions and a qualified pledge to avoid layoffs, IBEW members were asked to approve a contract that would have frozen their wages over the past two years, with a 0.75 per cent increase to be paid this year.

Remarkably, this essentially means the Progressive Conservative government of Manitoba is still trying to enforce the terms of the Public Sector Sustainability Act.

That bill, which was passed in the Manitoba Legislature but never proclaimed, called for two years of zero, with a 0.75 increase in the third year, and a 1.0 increase in the fourth, to help the provincial government restore fiscal stability. 

Manitoba Hydro IBEW members were offered two years at zero, with a 0.75 per cent increase in the third year. If that had been accepted, it would mean they would have gone nearly five years without a wage increase. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Manitoba Hydro IBEW members were offered two years at zero, with a 0.75 per cent increase in the third year. If that had been accepted, it would mean they would have gone nearly five years without a wage increase. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The bill was struck down last year by the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, largely on the basis the Pallister government was unable to substantiate its claim it could not afford to pay wage increases. The Tories subsequently appealed the decision.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty, the Pallister government was able to bully a handful of public-sector unions into accepting the two-year freeze without negotiation. However, for all other bargaining groups, the province has largely refused to negotiate in any meaningful way, leaving tens of thousands of public servants without contracts.

Yet, even with its attempts to paralyze collective bargaining, the Tories settled some contracts where retroactive pay increases were required.

Two school divisions, Pembina Trails (last month) and Louis Riel (last year), won settlements through binding arbitration that include modest wage increases dating to 2018. Beautiful Plains recently reached a negotiated settlement with nearly identical wage increases for the previous two years.

With teachers getting retroactive pay increases, and the wage-control act on life support at the courts, one has to wonder what strategy the premier will employ to settle all remaining contracts without breaking the provincial treasury?

If he has a strategy, and it’s not clear yet he does, he’s keeping it well-hidden.

That could be a problem. There are some huge outstanding contracts to settle, including one with 14,000 members of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, which expires this year, and a long-overdue pact with 12,000 nurses represented by the Manitoba Nurses Union.

As of March 31, the MNU will have been without a contract for four years. Although the nurses do not have access to binding arbitration, there is only so long government can drag its feet on negotiations before it will be found guilty of an unfair labour practice, and put itself into a position where a settlement could be imposed.

Premier Brian Pallister  introduced the Public Sector Sustainability Act ion 2017 calling for two years of zero per cent increases, with a 0.75 increase in the third year, and a 1.0 increase in the fourth for all public sector employees. It was thrown out by the court. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister introduced the Public Sector Sustainability Act ion 2017 calling for two years of zero per cent increases, with a 0.75 increase in the third year, and a 1.0 increase in the fourth for all public sector employees. It was thrown out by the court. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The province and MNU are still, technically, "talking." However, union officials concede little progress is being made, even amidst the spotlight on health-care workers in the COVID-19 pandemic.

At some point, the MNU and province are going to get a deal done — and you can bet it won’t feature a four-year wage freeze.

Which brings us back to the striking Hydro workers.

No matter where you stand on collective bargaining and public-sector unions, the offer made — no doubt tightly scripted at cabinet level — does not represent a sincere effort to reach a deal.

Pallister may argue all this foot-dragging helps him make government more affordable, thus saving taxpayers money.

However, he should remember all the public servants who are without contracts are also voters. While a good number of them are not politically aligned with organized labour or its party of choice (NDP), they all expect to be treated with some measure of fairness by their employer.

Hydro workers are just the latest bargaining group to join a long queue of public servants who have undergone a master class in premierial contempt.

One way or the other, either in the near term or well down the road when Manitobans next go to the polls, there will be a political price to be paid.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.