Fortis lockout creating ripple effect

Month-long labour dispute putting some construction projects on hold

As a hot July melts into the dog days of August it’s not just the temperature that’s warming up as the FortisBC lockout of 230 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) reaches the one month mark.

Local construction contractors are beginning to feel the heat as well.

“We’ve gone beyond feeling it, this is directly affecting us,” said Mark Daugherty, a project manager with DJM Contracting. “Thirty per cent of our projects are on hold or will be on hold soon and there are some we won’t be able to complete.”

Daugherty explained that many construction projects require that power be disconnected to allow work or re-connected once the work is complete and none of this can be done without FortisBC.

“We’ve got one house slated for demolition in Rossland, so we can begin building, that we need a disconnect for,” he said. “That one’s not going anywhere. I’d say everyone in construction is affected by this.”

Electrical contractor, Brad Smith, of iTal Electric, says he is also seeing the lockout’s effects on his work schedule.

“It’s definitely slowing things down,” Smith said. “I’ve had to re-schedule jobs for whenever they get back to work. I’m just hoping this doesn’t last too much longer so that jobs get backed up, then how will they prioritize the jobs once they get back to work?”

Apparently even on jobs that are underway the lack of electrical services from FortisBC can result in slower progress on projects.

“We’re working on a duplex behind the mall where we can’t get a hookup,”said Kevin Fairweather of K2 Contracting. “On another job we have to use a generator to power the site. If the generator runs out of gas you have five guys standing around waiting while it gets re-fueled. It’s a definite inconvenience.”

The electrical utility and its employees in generation, transmission, and distribution have been at loggerheads since June 26 when the company locked out power line technicians, distribution operators, and dispatcher workers in the West Kootenay and Okanagan.

After contract negotiations broke down in March FortisBC applied for, and was granted an Essential Services order by the B.C. Labour Relations Board (LRB) laying out activities and responsibilities for the two parties (ESO) to ensure safe and reliable delivery of electrical services to their customers.

IBEW members began limited job action in May which lead to the lockout in June with the company citing a need to provide “reliability and certainty” to their customers.

Since that time the union has approached the LRB claiming FortisBC was violating the terms of the ESO.

“We were in Vancouver on the 15th [of July] and got the decision,” said Rod Russell, business manager for the IBEW. “Then on the 18th the company applied to vary the order, which in my opinion was more like terminating the order, then at the last minute they withdrew the application.”

Russell said FortisBC has 165 managers and some staff doing the work of the IBEW membership under the terms of the ESO, which he says limits the effectiveness of any job action the union can take.

“We did go to the LRB and they did provide some certainty on things we could do and couldn’t do,” said Neal Pobran, corporate communications manager for FortisBC. “We can do new connections but not disconnections for upgrades and we’re not allowed to photograph meters and managers don’t have to work 60 hours per week. This is part of the whole process that was put in place by the LRB that allows us to get more clarity.”

FortisBC applied to the B.C. Utilities Commision for a 3.3 per cent rate increase in the beginning of July. Rates would increase in 2014.