FortisBC locked out members of Local 213 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Wednesday morning, affecting 225 employees in the B.C. Southern Interior.
Those directly affected are electric employees working in generation, transmission, and distribution operations, including employees at Warfield’s System Control Centre such as power line technicians, electricians, and power systems dispatchers.
The move came as a surprise to the IBEW union representatives and membership.
“I got a phone call at 9 a.m. and received a letter this morning. They told me they were going to be locking us out.” explained Rod Russell, Local 213 IBEW business manager.
“FortisBC felt it was appropriate to take this action at this time to provide reliability and certainty to our customers,” said Joyce Wagenaar, FortisBC Director of Communications. “Customers can expect regular electrical services, availability of our contact centre, regular billing, and crews to respond to power outages.”
The two sides have been bargaining since January with the existing collective agreement expiring in February.
Talks continued until mid-March when, after negotiations and mediation provided no new agreement, the union filed strike notice.
At that point the company applied to the B.C. Labour Relations Board in April to have certain services designated as “Essential Services,” and was granted the designation.
FortisBC then, under Section 78 of the B.C. Labour Relations Code, took their offer directly to the voting membership.
“Negotiations weren’t successful, mediation wasn’t successful, so they took it to the members,” said Russell. “The Labour Board counted the ballots and there was a 90.4 per cent return, 88.4 per cent of the membership rejected the offer.”
In mid-May the union began limited job action leading up to FortisBC’s decision Wednesday to lockout their employees and activate the essential services order.
“FortisBC respects legal job action but members were coming to work and not completing their full responsibilities,” said Wagenaar. “The action we took was to ensure safety and reliability for our workers and the public.”
Although there is no schedule to return to the bargaining table both sides in the dispute maintain that they are open to further discussion.
“The lines of communication are open but no negotiations are set,” said Russell. “I anticipate some inconvenience to the public and I don’t think either of us will get a lot of sympathy but we’ll see where it all takes us.”