By Valerie Rossi
FortisBC employees are heading back to work this week with the majority on the clock Friday, following a nearly six-month long lockout.
Both parties, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 213 and the utility, have agreed to go to binding arbitration and will look to make their pitch to arbitrator Dalton Larson.
In the meantime, more than 200 locked out employees will go back to work over the course of this week with some extension given to those who have been working out of the area and have to make their way home.
“Sometimes it’s like climbing over the edge of the cliff, you can get part way down but you never think about how to get all the way down or back up,” said IBEW business manager Rod Russell Monday. “The company locked us out and there was some resolution on both sides but it was just difficult to get back so we need a third party to help us.”
FortisBC closed the gates on electrical workers on June 26, activating an essential services order that had been approved by the B.C. Labour Relations Board in April, affecting employees in power generation, transmission, and distribution in the West Kootenay and Okanagan.
Talks had barely begun before the two sides saw a widening gap between their positions, generally focusing on the introduction of a two-tier pay and benefit package for newly hired employees, the introduction of new contract language regarding travel pay, retroactivity of any pay increase, and discussions around a compressed work week altering between five days at 7.5 hours or four days at 10 hours, based on the company’s discretion.
“We are pleased that the union leadership has accepted our invitation,” Michael Mulcahy, executive vice-president of human resources, customer service and corporate services was noted in a news release. “This is a positive step. We’ll be welcoming our employees back in the coming days and now both parties can start to move forward.”
FortisBC employees will return to work under the terms of the expired collective agreement. The binding interest arbitration process will begin at a later date, with the outcome resulting in a new collective agreement.
Russell said he’s glad members are going back to work but admitted that he’s disappointed that a negotiated settlement couldn’t be reached.
“Both parties have now put their destiny in the hands of a third party and we’ll all put our best foot forward as far making the case for what we need to come out of this and we’ll see what happens and we’ll have to live with the results,” he said.
It will be a difficult transition, he said, pointing to a strain on relationships developed over the “long, arduous haul.” But his hope is that a future dispute of this kind can be bypassed.
“It was a war that nobody won and could have easily been avoided.”
About 10 per cent of the locked out employees have terminated their employment, particularly, but not exclusively power line technicians, said Russell.