Manitoba Hydro workers threaten another strike 2 years after last labour dispute

The 2,300 front-line Manitoba Hydro workers who were on strike two years ago are on the verge of walking off the job again.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034, which represents the staff, issued a 48-hour strike notice to the public utility Wednesday morning, Mike Espenell, business manager for the union, confirmed. 

He said members rejected Hydro’s final offer in May following 16 months of bargaining, and no significant conversations have occurred between the two sides since then.

Espenell said their members’ wages are continuing to fall behind other jurisdictions, and it’s resulting in challenges recruiting and retaining staff. The union’s members include workers at generating stations and on transmission lines.

“We’ve got some very significant hurdles with the significant cost of living increases over the last couple of years, and a significant diminishing of staff’s purchasing power,” he said. 

In an internal email to union members, Espenell wrote picket line information and rules would be sent to membership in the coming days. 

The union is able to strike as early as Friday morning, but it doesn’t mean the union will necessarily follow through.

Espenell wouldn’t say if the union would again embark on a rolling strike, in which the labour action moves from one workplace or department to the next, but “there will be some activity starting on Friday.” 

Last strike lasted almost 2 months

The threat of more labour action follows a nearly two-month-long strike involving the same workers in spring 2021, following 28 months of unsuccessful negotiations.

At the time, the Progressive Conservative government, which initially tried to freeze public-sector wages through legislation, asked Hydro to keep the wages of IBEW employees the same for two years, saying the “reset” was necessary while it coped with “dramatically falling revenues” and a “very large deficit,” owing to the pandemic. 

The last Hydro strike ended after the Manitoba Labour Board was enlisted to determine the new contract for the workers. The board-imposed deal lasted until February 2022, and ever since the union’s members have gone without a new contract.

Espenell said it is disappointing that members, which includes workers at generating stations and on transmission lines, are again fighting for fairer wages. 

“I think for the most part, the membership is just frustrated from feeling like there’s a very inequitable treatment between the executive and management at the corporation” and themselves, he said.

He said the corporation initially claimed it wasn’t in the financial position to afford wage increases approaching the cost of living, but he disagrees since Hydro projected a net income in the last fiscal year approaching $700 million, according to the last quarterly report available on the utility’s website.

Hydro workers make repairs at the top of a Hydro pole.
Front-line Manitoba Hydro workers could be on strike as early as Friday. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said the company’s last offer is one the Crown utility believes “balanced fairness to our employees with fiscal responsibility to our customers.”

“We remain committed to reaching a fair and equitable settlement with IBEW through the collective bargaining process. Our goal is still to conclude negotiations as soon as possible to minimize the impact on our customers, whether they be residential a customer or a business,” he added.

Hydro said it has contingency plans in place to ensure the lights stay on through any labour dispute.

The corporation and union have also signed an emergency services agreement to guarantee staff will be available to respond to any fires, confined space rescues and significant oil spills in the event of a strike.

IBEW is the largest bargaining unit for employees at Hydro.