Workers at British Columbia’s Coast Mountain Hydro have joined with Vancouver Local 258. Photo credit: Joshua Wolfe

In near record time and under some trying circumstances, workers at Coast Mountain Hydro have chosen to join with Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 258.

"You couldn’t execute and organize in a more credible fashion than 258 did,” said International Representative Adam Van Steinburg, who assisted with the campaign. “I’m very proud of that local.”

When Lead Organizer Brandon Dyck spoke with the workers at Coast Mountain Hydro in 2016, nothing came of it. But times have changed. The pandemic has caused a reckoning among workers and many want more than what their employers are initially willing to give them.

“I think COVID has caused a lot of people to reevaluate their worth and how their job factors into that,” Dyck said.

In this case, much of what the 26 electricians and millwrights wanted came down to the age-old issues of safety, scheduling and wages. It’s gotten harder to hire the skilled craftspeople needed to do the job, so the company started paying new hires more than what some senior staff were making. And the safety meetings were considered something that was mostly for show. So when the workers reached out last June to Local 258, there was new energy and more momentum pushing for change.

Still, organizing is never easy. The worksite is located in a very rural part of British Columbia. It takes a two-hour plane ride followed by a seven-hour drive just to get there. For that reason, as well as the pandemic, initial contact was all online. But hard work and perseverance got it done. They won the certification vote, which took place in September. But they only won by one vote, suggesting that support was waning. So, Dyck and Local 258 Organizer Ken Mitchell made the trek up to the site for some much-needed face-to-face interaction.

“It was certainly a challenge. With COVID and the remote location, it forced us to utilize every tool we had,” Dyck said. “But you have to meet in person at some point. It’s hard to build trust solely online.”

What they encountered was indeed some mistrust and as well as misinformation. The workers didn’t really know what unions do, so the organizers had to start from square one with education.

“We explained what the IBEW is and how we were there to help them get what they were after,” Mitchell said.

The hydro facility is also on the land of the Talthan First Nations people, so there are agreements that need to be honored. And some of the Indigenous community were worried that the agreement would be taken away or that they wouldn’t be allowed to work anywhere else. There’s also the issue of historical discrimination and abuse of Indigenous people, which needed to be addressed.   

“You have to be transparent and approach everything with honesty and integrity,” Van Steinburg said. “You can’t be seen as not forthcoming.”

Mitchell, who is Indigenous, was able to make some inroads with the First Nations community. 

“I told them what the IBEW has done for me and how it’s improved my quality of life,” Mitchell said. “I told them I have a good career because of the IBEW. And I let them know that I wasn’t a salesman. I think that made a difference.”

When the members voted on their first contract in February, it was a different story. It passed almost unanimously. Thanks to that contract, wages are now more equal and the safety committee, which will be comprised of labor and management representatives, has real teeth.

“I’m happy there was a solid vote on the contract,” Mitchell said. “That’s how you know the members are happy.”

And now they’ve got a brotherhood to back them up whenever they need it.

“I want to welcome these new members from Coast Mountain Hydro to the IBEW family,” said First District Vice President Tom Reid. “And I want to thank our IBEW Membership Development team, Local 258 Business Manager Doug McKay and everyone on his team involved in this campaign. The First District covers a vast geographical area and this is a great example of how we can use different methods of organizing to reach out to workers in rural and remote areas interested in joining the IBEW, but at the end of the day, nothing can replace the importance of a face-to-face conversation with workers.”

The Coast Mountain Hydro campaign is just one of many currently underway. It’s also the first independent power producer to sign a contract in the province, McKay said, but hopefully not the last.

“We’re hoping this will open the doors to organizing more IPPs,” said McKay, who has about half of his members working for the provincially-owned BC Hydro. “We’re chasing everything we can.”