FortisBC served with strike notice

81 Trail people served strike notice at FortisBC as employees of Cope 378 union voted in favour of a strike

Strike notice has been served by 81 Trail people at FortisBC as employees of Cope 378 union voted in favour of a strike, according to voting results released earlier this week.

Citing an attack on their benefits, the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union, local 378 (COPE 378) announced its members at FortisBC Inc. (Electric) have given the union an 88 per cent strike vote.

A 72-hour strike notice was served Tuesday at 1 p.m., said COPE 378 senior union representative Brad Bastien, but he anticipated the union members—which includes eight members in South Slocan, 48 in Kelowna, two in Penticton, and six in Oliver—would not be walking the picket lines.

FortisBC is applying to the BC Labour Relations Board to have some electricity functions designated as essential. No job action can take place until an approved essential services order is in place.

“(We) are very entrenched in not accepting any concessions within the collective agreement, and we are prepared to stay out as long as it takes to get those concessions off the table,” he said.

The two sides will be returning to the bargaining table on Oct. 3. Bastien said it will depend how that day goes whether they will exercise their walk out notice.

The union sought clarification fro their membership after the company’s last offer in late August was rejected. FortisBC’s priority was to get back to the bargaining table, said Joyce Wagenaar, FortisBC director of communications.

FortisBC is looking forward to resuming negotiations and reaching an agreement,” she said. “From FortisBC’s perspective we did present an offer which is market competitive and balances the interests of our employees and our customers.”

She said the company has a contingency plan for its electric service to deal with various forms of job action.

The union has been without a contract since January, 2011. COPE 378’s members perform inside work at FortisBC Inc. (Electric) including office administration, IT, design, planning, project coordination and analysis.

Bastien said FortisBC proposed “flex” benefit plans for employees and retirees require multiple types of services in a short period of time. He said the plan would find it difficult to get the coverage they need.

“The employer is coming after some fundamental benefits of ours and trying to erode the benefits which people will always galvanize around,” he said. These are membership benefits we’ve had for a very long time and have achieved over numerous collective agreements.”

He said the proposed retiree plan has half the lifetime maximum of the current plan and completely eliminates coverage for MSP, vision care, emergency medical services, basic life insurance, and paramedical services like chiropractor or physiotherapy.

Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE) union Local 378 president David Black said the two sides have largely agreed on wages and the duration of the contract, but the main sticking point is around benefits.

And with FortisBC quite successful financially right now, the union “does not see any need to have their benefits reduced,” Black said.

The union told the company “clearly in June the offer would not fly,” and after a summer bargaining break the company would not budge when negotiations resumed in August.

“We bargained with them as we could around other issues, but this is very much an outstanding issue there,” Black said.

It has been a complicated round of bargaining with FortisBC now owning most of the electrical utility companies in the Kootenays and having bought Terasen Gas. There was some discussion of merging the two company’s collective agreements—a move that did not happen.