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Top stories of 2013: Unions square off against province and companies

The last 365 days saw its share of labour battles in the Greater Trail area and a sometimes controversial petition campaign to round out the year.

The longest, and probably most divisive, labour issue was the recently settled FortisBC lockout of over 200 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 213 working in generation, transmission, and distribution of power.

“Going back to work is a relief but I don’t like the circumstances,” said Albert Bortolussi, IBEW bargaining committee member.

“We should have been able to get an agreement but we exhausted every effort.”

Bortolussi admitted that the general feeling amongst the union membership was probably similar to his own but that the extended lockout had taken its toll on many workers who had gone so long without pay.

“I think we had a lot of people whose mortgages had to be extended but we have a lot of proud people who never showed how much they were hurting financially,” he said.

“The membership’s resilience is phenomenal; nobody showed the pain because they believed in what we were doing.”

The picketers were surprised and greatly appreciative at signs that many people in the community stood behind them during their struggle against the company.

“One guy dropped of a turkey and all the trimmings, a whole load of groceries, and he told us to give it to whoever was in need,” Bortolussi said. “One lady showed up at the fire pit (on the picket line) and gave each guy there a Christmas card, she wouldn’t give her name. When the guys opened the cards there was $100 in each card. She wouldn’t take it back. There was another lady who came by every Thursday and dropped off pretzels and muffins and all sorts of baking so we took $200 from the cards and gave it to her as thanks for the support. We were overwhelmed by the support in the community.”

The two sides had faced off beginning in January with bargaining negotiations and the clock ticking on the old collective agreement which expired in February.

Talks continued without resolution until March when the union took a vote and filed strike notice.

Upon receiving notice the company approached the B.C. Labour Relations Board to have certain areas of its operations designated as essential services, thereby requiring regulated staffing levels by IBEW employees to maintain electrical service.

Fortis B.C. then took its initial offer directly to the union, bypassing the IBEW bargaining committee, only to see its offer voted down a second time.

In May the union began limited job action which the company saw as jeopardizing the reliability and safety of its operations and prompted them to lock out the IBEW members.

The lockout affected FortisBC workers across the Southern Interior of the province throughout the Kootenays and Okanagan.

The lockout continued for almost six months and saw a number of false starts as the two sides attempted negotiation and mediation, until finally agreeing to binding interest arbitration just prior to Christmas, which allowed the locked out employees to return to work while the final settlement was being decided by the arbitrator.

The year also heard rumblings of labour unrest in the education sector as provincial educational workers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) entered into negotiations with the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association.

Summer threats of job action were narrowly averted when the two sides reached a deal for a wage increase of 3.5 per cent over the length of the contract in September.

The new contract, which included a 1 per cent retroactive raise, a 2 per cent raise Feb 1, and another 0.5 percent on May 1, actually expires in June of 2014 setting the stage for another round of uncertainty on the educational labour front.

An issue of concern to both the local school board and the unions was the provincial government’s decision to cut local school districts out of the negotiation process and negotiate raises without increasing the amount of funding available to districts from the province.

“I’m not happy that the government has decided not to fund any raises or increase in benefits themselves, that they’ve downloaded the costs onto the districts,” Roger Smith, president of CUPE Local 1285, said in late November. “The districts are already under a financial strain due to underfunding by the government.”

School District 20 (SD 20 ) managed to find funding to cover the wage increases for the current school year through a small surplus and savings in some operational costs but struggled to identify funds to pay for the coming year’s increases without potential job cuts in the future.

The issue of new funding to cover labour agreements will be of particular concern in the coming year because, in addition to the CUPE contract coming up in 2014, the B.C. Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) is still in the process of trying to negotiate a new contract as well.

SD 20 Board Chair, Darrel Ganzert, remains hopeful that the provincial government will increase funding to cover the costs of the new contracts.

“I think the government is indicating a change in the way they’ll be doing things,” Ganzert said. “They’ve made some settlements recently, HEU signed a new contract, it was longer term but with some increases. There is new funding there. I think it’s the similar with the teachers. Boards around the province have their fingers crossed that new money will be added.”

For now the negotiations between the BCTF and the provincially appointed negotiator and the hope is for no interruptions in the education system.

“The system is under pressure,” said Ganzert. “Teachers and the school boards are doing all they can to make it work.”

In 2013, B.C. saw a provincial campaign to decriminalize marijuana in the province as a lead up to efforts to eventually see it legalized in Canada.

Although the campaign was unsuccessful in the province as a whole, petitioners were able to gather signatures from the required 10 percent of voters in the Kootenay West riding but not without a bit of controversy near the end of the campaign.

The Sensible BC campaign was able to gather 200,000 of the required 300,000 signatures, succeeding in their efforts in ridings such as Columbia River-Revelstoke, Kootenay East, Kootenay West, Nelson Creston, Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, Victoria-Beacon Hill, and Westside-Kelowna.

The campaign was facing an uphill battle from the start with the same requirements as the HST campaign in 2011. But where the HST campaign managed to stir up province-wide resentment to the tax imposed by the B.C. liberal government the Sensible BC effort never appeared to catch the attention of the general public in the same way.

Many petition campaigns around the province lacked enough canvassers to cover their ridings and in some situations met with direct opposition from some citizens and business owners who objected to the campaigners being in the vicinity of their businesses.

Although this attempt to change the legislation of B.C. was not successful Province-wide campaign organizer and marijuana activist, Dana Larsen, said that it won’t be the last the province hears from Sensible BC.

“There’s no dates yet to start again but we learned a lot,” Larsen said at the end of the campaign. “We have to evolve, we have to re-organize. We’ll be back next time.”

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