Fortis, union begin talks

Mediator Vince Ready called in as lockout nears two-month mark

It’s been a long, hot summer for 225 Fortis BC employees who spent their days manning picket lines after being locked out by the company in late June.

Wednesday, just under two months into the dispute, Fortis BC and Local 213 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have finally sat down with mediator, Vince Ready, for two days of negotiations in an attempt to try to resolve the differences that have left employees idle and stalled construction projects over much of the southern interior of B.C.

“Both parties began mediation with Vince Ready,” Joyce Wagenaar, director of communications for Fortis BC, said by phone.

“In order for the mediation to be successful and to make the best use of Mr. Ready’s time both parties must be prepared to be flexible.”

The two sides have been at odds since the collective agreement between the two expired in February. Shortly after that negotiations broke down in late March and the union filed strike notice.

The company then applied for an Essential Services Order (ESO) with the B.C. Labour Relations Board (LRB) which was granted with the intention of maintaining public safety and access to reliable electrical service.

Since that time the union has approached the LRB with complaints that Fortis BC was violating the terms of the ESO by conducting work prohibited under the agreement.

“As recently as Aug. 6 and 8, Fortis and the IBEW have been in negotiations with the Labour Relations Board,” said Wagenaar.

“The LRB didn’t find Fortis in contravention of the Essential Services Order at that time. There is also a process in place to discuss differences in interpretation and both sides received confirmation and clarification at that point.”

The lockout has affected Fortis employees in generation, transmission, and distribution operations in the West Kootenay and Okanagan, including power line technicians, electricians, and power systems dispatchers.

Both sides in the dispute have maintained a willingness to negotiate to resolve the differences and have both stated that the differences between the union and company have been relatively small.

Rod Russell, business manager for Local 213 of the IBEW, was in mediation talks at press time and unavailable for comment Wednesday.

However, in an email message Tuesday evening stated, “We continue to make various applications to the Labour Relations Board as a result of FortisBC’s disregard for the provisions agreed to and our need to apply additional pressure on the company.

“Some items are being deferred until after the scheduled mediation dates. We are hopeful Mr. Ready is able to help us reach an agreement.”