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Sparks fly as union seeks ally in Tories

Electrical workers blast Hydro, NDP for jobs given to private contractors

Tory Leader Brian Pallister says he would give government employees a chance to bid on jobs rather than lay them off.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Tory Leader Brian Pallister says he would give government employees a chance to bid on jobs rather than lay them off.

A local union angry at losing out on work for Manitoba Hydro has enlisted the help of the unlikeliest of allies -- Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister.

Stan Struthers

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Stan Struthers (WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 joined Pallister at a news event Monday to condemn Hydro and the NDP for farming out work once done by IBEW members to private contractors and conveying misleading information about its membership strength.

IBEW business manager Mike Velie made no apologies for joining forces with Pallister and his Tories, whom the NDP and unions typically portray as the enemy of organized labour. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 even blacked out Pallister's face in a photo of his participation in an April 28 walk in support of workers killed and hurt on the job. The photo is in the May issue of the union's magazine.

Velie said it was his job to protect his membership regardless of politics.

"We're not against any party," he said of the Manitoba Federation of Labour-affiliated union. "What we're opposed to is reckless contracting out."

Velie said since the NDP was elected in 1999, the IBEW has lost out to cheaper private contractors in work for Hydro on tree-trimming, dam maintenance, pole maintenance and underground installations.

A recent job to remove 3,000 rotten hydro poles was awarded to an aboriginal company that employs 160 people.

"It's like there's a full-out intent not to have Manitoba Hydro employees perform the work," he said.

He said he's asked Hydro for an explanation on contracting out its work and for a meeting with the government.

Stan Struthers, the minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, said he already met with Velie twice and assured him Hydro would work with the union to bid on future jobs.

"I've asked Hydro to even take it one step further and to make sure that IBEW knows which projects are going to come forward so they can get ready to fulfil the work that needs to be done," Struthers said. A provision in the collective agreement says Hydro must fully consider keeping work in-house and advise the union as soon as possible of its intention to contract out projects.

Hydro is under pressure from the Public Utilities Board to reduce its annual electrical operation, maintenance and administration costs, which increased 25 per cent between 2009 and 2013, due in part to increased staffing levels.

Velie said the government was inaccurate when it recently said the NDP has grown the local by almost 650 members, and that Premier Greg Selinger was wrong when he said in the legislature April 9 "there's close to 700 additional linemen in Manitoba."

Velie said there are only 117 hourly journeymen in the local, half of whom work in customer service centres, which means there are only 50 to 60 power-line technicians to work on construction crews. Total local IBEW membership, the largest union at Manitoba Hydro, is about 2,800.

"Our growth is stifling," he said. "The IBEW at Manitoba Hydro is not growing at the same rates as the rest of the corporation."

Pallister said the NDP's treatment of IBEW has more to do with fear-mongering than fairness to workers.

"What the government is doing is they are pre-ordaining that government workers cannot provide that service in a cost-effective way by not even giving them a shot at bidding on the work," he said. "It's not shopping smart."

Pallister said when he was last in provincial government as the government services minister under former premier Gary Filmon, the Tories pursued special operating agencies to give government employees an opportunity to work rather than lay them off.

"My record speaks to the willingness to do that, and my intention is to do that," he said.

Struthers said the biggest threat to the IBEW and Hydro comes from Pallister, who Struthers said would halt building new dams and privatize the Crown utility if he becomes premier.

Pallister said he's never had a plan to privatize Manitoba Hydro.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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