Province calls for wage freeze for some Manitoba Hydro workers

The Manitoba government wants thousands of Hydro workers to agree to two years without any wage increase, despite a recent court decision which struck down government legislation requiring a wage freeze.

The Opposition New Democrats shared an internal government memo Friday that asked Manitoba Hydro’s president and chairperson to keep wages stagnant for employees represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034, for a two-year period. IBEW is the largest bargaining unit for employees of the Crown corporation.

The province’s memo described the wage freeze as a “reset” that would provide “both sides with an opportunity to reassess the situation and resume bargaining in mid-2021, when there are less unknowns about COVID-19 and the massive budgetary pressures it is undoubtedly casting.”

The letter adds “this approach may not meet some expectations,” but says it is necessary while government copes with “dramatically falling revenues” and a “very large deficit” expected for 2020-21.

The request comes as Premier Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government appeals a recent court ruling, which struck down mandated contracts for public sector workers that contained no wage hikes for the first two years. 

Tories ‘obsessed’ with stagnant pay: NDP

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government is “obsessed” with pushing wage freezes on public sector workers.

“That’s not fair bargaining, when you predetermine the outcome,” he told reporters Friday at the Manitoba Legislature.

He called the proposed wage freeze “a bad move in any time,” but “particularly during a recession, when we know that keeping people working and keeping people earning a decent paycheque is so, so important to us getting out of the recession.”

The recent memo to Hydro says the requested wage freeze, which would affect almost 2,300 workers, is consistent with the “broader mandate” being adopted in bargaining with the public sector.

Winnipeg School Division bus drivers have been on the picket line since early September. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The province’s request mirrors what it asked the Winnipeg School Division to do while negotiating with bus drivers. The drivers have been on strike since September. 

“Even in spite of the fact the Pallister government lost in court, they’re still sending out these letters, whether it’s to Manitoba Hydro today, to try and take money away from people with good Hydro jobs, or whether it’s to the bus drivers at the Winnipeg School Division,” Kinew said.

“They don’t seem to have learned the lesson that the wage freeze is wrong.”

Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton said it’s well within government’s purview to set mandates for the public sector.

“We have done this in an open and transparent way, recognizing the unprecedented challenges caused by COVID-19,” Wharton said in an email.

All hands on deck, government says

“We appreciate the efforts of all Manitobans, including public sector unions and employees, as we lead an all-hands-on-deck approach to fighting the pandemic while avoiding layoffs and keeping taxes low.”

But Mike Espenell, IBEW Local 204 business manager, said the government’s pandemic explanation doesn’t hold weight. 

This summer, Hydro forecast $47 million in profit, even after the pandemic ravaged the economy and softened electricity demand.

“It’s a difficult pill to swallow,” Espenell said of the proposal, after the union took three unpaid days off in order to avoid temporary layoffs for some of their members during the pandemic.

IBEW Local 204 — which represents most of Manitoba Hydro’s front-line field employees, such as workers at generating stations and on transmission lines — has been without a contract with the corporation since late 2018. The sides last negotiated in August, Espenell said.