city, union had no essential services agreement in place – Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg’s top bureaucrat hits out at the union which represents the city’s 4,900 workers – saying residents should be ‘shocked and outraged’ – after the city government intervened hours after a strike that could have put its essential services at risk.

Around 8 p.m. Tuesday, the city and Local 500 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees each said publicly that a tentative labor agreement had been reached to prevent a strike that was scheduled to begin at midnight Wednesday.

On the same day, several sources contacted the Free press warn that the absence of City of Winnipeg employees could increase the risk of sewage spills, boil water advisories and delays in responding to emergency calls.

Water and waste personnel, as well as 911 operators, were included in the potential work action. Also on the list were swimming pools, libraries, 311 and public works employees and other government departments.

However, the city and its largest union had failed to agree on an essential services agreement by the strike deadline – one that would ensure workers providing the most critical services stayed on the job.

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Winnipeg general manager Michael Jack blamed the union.

Winnipeg general manager Michael Jack blamed the union.

“Winnipegians should be surprised that (an essential services agreement) is not in place… This is something the city has asked for before and CUPE has never been ready to accept it… So people should be, frankly, shocked and outraged that CUPE is not ready to include this,” Jack said Wednesday.

The city sent a proposed essential services agreement to CUPE in July specific to this round of bargaining, but the union refused to sign it, the OAC said.

In September, city officials proposed a new framework to protect essential services from industrial action, which was also rejected, Jack said.

This proposal would have ensured that an essential services agreement was in place before a strike or lockout could take place. If an agreement was not reached seven days before a scheduled labor action, the matter would be subject to an expedited arbitration process to settle it before any labor disruption.

Such an agreement would also prevent the city from looking for alternative workers to replace non-essential staff who were on strike, Jack said.

“It gives everyone the certainty, in the event of a labor disruption, that the most critical services will still be provided, that people will have clean water to drink, that people will still respond to 911 calls… We hoped that was obvious.”

Jack confirmed that provincial law already prevents Winnipeg police and firefighters from going on strike, with their labor disputes being referred to arbitration when an agreement cannot be reached at the bargaining table.

“Absolutely – we have agreed to negotiate the terms of an essential services agreement every round of negotiations.”– Gord Delbridge

Risks from this week’s industrial action will trigger further discussions with CUPE, Jack said, adding that he will also consider asking City Council to seek new provincial legislation that prevents key workers from going on strike. .

“I think that’s probably a bit of a red flag,” he said.

The leader of CUPE Local 500 countered that the union was eager to ensure the protection of essential services.

“Absolutely – we have agreed to negotiate the terms of an essential services agreement every round of negotiations,” Chairman Gord Delbridge said Wednesday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS KITS

Gord Delbridge said it’s helpful to have a new essential services agreement for each round of collective bargaining because jobs can change over the years.

Delbridge said it’s helpful to have a new essential services agreement in place for each round of labor negotiations because jobs can change over the years, with some being added or cut, and floods or other natural disasters can increase the immediate need for specific employees.

The process is much more complicated than simply declaring 911 and water and waste workers “essential,” the union leader said, noting that some snow removal crews would likely also fall into that category.

The terms offered in the city’s essential services proposal were far too broad, including hundreds of jobs that CUPE says should not be excluded from a strike, Delbridge said.

“A lot of times they come to us and think the grass cutting (staff) and mechanics should be deemed essential.”

“A lot of times they come to us and think the grass cutting (staff) and mechanics should be deemed essential.”– Gord Delbridge

Jack denied that the city suggested categories that were too broad, saying the union had not offered “meaningful” suggestions on which positions to cut.

Com. Sherri Rollins, chair of the protection and community services committee, said she was surprised that a strike had come close to taking place without an agreement on workers who would be deemed essential.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Com. Sherri Rollins said she was surprised a strike was so close to taking place without an agreement on workers who would be deemed essential.

“What weighed on me all the time was that we didn’t have an agreement on essential services. Of course, (it’s) surprising,” Rollins said.

Com. Brian Mayes, a lay labor lawyer, said better protecting city services while respecting workers’ rights must be a top priority moving forward.

“We need drinking water, we need a working sewage system. These are essential services… This is important work, it’s just never been developed here,” Mayes said. “(On the other hand), the employer should be saying, we’re not going to bring in school buses full of replacement workers to do all the (union) work.”

A labor expert said the lack of agreement on workers deemed too critical to strike could be a sign of particularly difficult negotiations.

“It kind of surprises me that they didn’t have an essential services agreement when they were so close to a strike deadline… One question that comes to mind is this : is this proof of a series of acrimonious negotiations? said David Camfield, associate professor of labor studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba.

“One question that comes to mind is: is this evidence of a series of acrimonious negotiations?”–David Camfield

It is not easy to determine which personnel are essential, he added. “Basically, there’s no objective way to define who’s essential or not… So it’s always political, it’s always contested.

Camfield noted that there are also significant legal implications for removing the right to strike on a more permanent basis, such as through provincial legislation.

“Essentially the Supreme Court decisions extended some legal protection to the right to strike, so if you want to take it away, there has to be a high bar and there has to be an alternative method of resolving the dispute.”

The city and the union declined to reveal details of the tentative agreement, which CUPE members and the board are expected to vote on over the next few weeks.

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Journalist

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves telling the stories of this city, especially when it comes to politics. Joyanne became a reporter at City Hall for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

Michelle J. Kelley