When management at Nova Scotia Power announced last year that they were looking to outsource unionized services, IBEW linemen in the province were taken aback. How would the company be able to keep the lights on for 500,000 residents and businesses with a lesser-trained workforce?
“Our men and women are the best at what they do,” Halifax Local 1928 Business Manager Jeff Richardson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in May. Richardson represents about 850 NSP employees. “You can’t just replace them. It takes years of training.”
The company started implementing its plan last fall. Since then, about 50 union employees have been laid off and others left the province to seek work in western Canada. NSP claimed the layoffs were a necessary cost cutting measure, despite criticisms and protests from Local 1928’s leadership.
But the situation got more complicated the morning of July 5, when Tropical Storm Arthur steamrolled through the province, knocking out power to 200,000 people and raising questions about the utility’s commitment to training and customer service. While a diminished IBEW crew worked to get the lights back on, NSP called in contractors from outside the province to help.
In the days that followed, newspapers and blogs throughout the province told stories of seniors and disabled residents without power, frustrated ratepayers striving in vain to get repair updates and scant communication via the utility’s website – which crashed due to online traffic.
|IBEW leaders with Halifax, Nova Scotia, Local 1928 successfully fought efforts by the province’s utility to outsource hundreds of union jobs.
Local 1928 leaders said that that NSP’s diminished line service and the use of outside contractors accounted for slower response time and longer outages for customers.
“We want to make sure that people are aware that even if we’re putting the power back on and there are delays, it’s not because we’re not out there,” Assistant Business Manager Andrea McQuillin told NovaNewsNow.com the day before Arthur hit the province. “It’s because of the direction that Nova Scotia Power has taken.”
McQuillin later told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that most of the crews restoring power were private contractors of parent company Emera Incorporated. The workers were less knowledgeable about the local electrical system and worked more slowly as a result, she said.
In the aftermath of the storm, the public relations skirmish and the looming threat of even more layoffs and outsourcing, leadership at Local 1928 secured a deal with NSP in late August to cease any attempt at outsourcing for the next 10 years. Richardson took that proposal to the local’s executive board for approval, and the membership voted Aug. 29 strongly in favor of the measure, halting the company’s efforts to slash 200 more union jobs.
In talks, Richardson said the company pressed a hard line to completely do away with the union’s defined benefit pension plan. Richardson and McQuillin were able to ensure that the current plan for existing members remained untouched for the next 15 years. But part of the deal mandates that new hires will not be covered by the same defined benefit plan other union members presently receive.
“I told the company that if they went through with their outsourcing tactics, they could look forward to a work stoppage,” Richardson said. “We have a contract coming up for negotiation in March, and we are very determined to stay strong and protect what we’ve gained to the best of our ability. Fortunately, they were willing to hear most of our concerns.”
By stymying the layoffs and outsourcing, Local 1928 activists are going against the grain of management tactics that have defined NSP for the last two decades. The utility was a publicly owned Crown corporation until 1992, when the provincial government privatized NSP in what was, at the time, Canada’s largest private equity transaction in history. The move created a board of shareholders who, in 2000, created Halifax-based parent company Emera Incorporated to oversee the utility.
Before privatization, the utility had about 350 linemen on the job. There are now only 167 in-house linemen on staff, and the company has not replaced those who were laid off or who left by attrition last year.
“They’re relying on contractors to pick up the pieces,” Richardson said. “But it’s tough to get qualified linemen.”
Premier Stephen Mitchell is asking Nova Scotia’s utilities regulator to review and assess NSP’s handling of the storm response.
In the meantime, Richardson is lobbying the company to take back the union workers who were laid off, while activists begin mobilizing for new contract talks next spring.