The war of words in the Manitoba Hydro labour dispute heated up Wednesday.
Striking workers accused the Pallister government of hypocrisy for receiving a pay hike set by an arbitrator while insisting that employees at the publicly owned utility accept a government-mandated wage freeze.
MLAs’ pay, which is set by an independent commissioner, includes a cost-of-living increase on April 1 of each year. (The PC caucus says its MLAs return their pay increases, and the NDP says its MLAs donate theirs to charity.)
"All we’re asking for is a fair deal for our members who are there for Manitobans every day," said Mike Espenell, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034.
Espenell said MLA salaries are set by an independent arbitrator, much like the type of arbitration that IBEW 2034 members have requested to resolve their contract negotiations with Manitoba Hydro.
Manitoba Hydro has refused to agree to binding arbitration with the union.
The Pallister government has issued a directive that public-sector workers receive no pay increase for the first two years of a new contract, followed by increases of no more than 0.75 per cent and one per cent in years 3 and 4.
Local 2034 is part of the coalition of public-sector unions that took the province to court over Bill 28, its wage-freeze bill, which was struck down as unconstitutional. "Even though the court told Pallister to back off, he’s still refusing to let Manitoba Hydro negotiate a fair deal with IBEW 2034", said Espenell. The province is appealing the Court of Queen’s Bench ruling.
Meanwhile, the Crown power corporation said it continues to respond to outages following a storm that blew into Manitoba Monday, despite the IBEW strike. It’s been able to get the power back on with the assistance of contingency workers, supervisory staff and contractors, "as part of its robust plan for maintaining service during a strike," a Manitoba Hydro news release said.
It said IBEW had been providing two hours’ notice of where its rotating strikes would occur, but recently has offered less than an hour’s notice or no notice, which has affected hydro response times.
The utility met with the IBEW on Monday to discuss collective bargaining and issues related to the strike. It said the union offered to sign an essential services agreement with Manitoba Hydro, but only on the condition the corporation agree to binding arbitration. Hydro declined.
"The provincial government has prevented Manitoba Hydro from doing so," IBEW spokesman Mike Velie said Wednesday. Local 2034 has proposed an essential services agreement since the workers’ contract expired more than two years ago, he said.
"As we have said since the beginning of this legal strike action, if the corporation needs our help, we encourage them to reach out to us. Hydro can always tell us what it requires and our members will always be there for Manitobans in moments of need," Velie said.
"We have no choice but to continue our scheduled rotation of strike action as a result of the Pallister government’s interference in the negotiation process. Our members have been on legal strike for over two weeks now, and there is no requirement for us to issue a strike notice to Manitoba Hydro, but we have been giving advance notice as a courtesy to them."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.