The IBEW in Canada celebrated when the New Democratic Party — a longtime advocate for the nation’s working families — swept into power in the Manitoba provincial elections Oct. 3.
The NDP formed a majority government after winning 34 of 57 seats, ending seven years of control by the anti-union Conservatives, who won 22 seats. The Liberals won the remaining seat.
“As a business manager in the province, I tried to get several meetings with the Conservative government when I was there,” said First District International Vice President Russ Shewchuk, who served as business manager at Winnipeg Local 2085 before being elected to his current position in May 2022. “They would never return a phone call.”
That is already changing with the NDP in charge. Premier Wab Kinew invited union leaders to play an active role in the government. Kinew is the first provincial premier of First Nations descent, which could help attract more citizens from traditionally underrepresented groups to the trades.
“It’s a really big win for our members and the province of Manitoba,” Winnipeg Local 2034 Business Manager Mike Espenell said.
Local 2034 members had a bigger reason to celebrate than most. The vast majority are employed by Crown-owned Manitoba Hydro, which reduced its workforce by about 900 employees in 2017, and then instituted a hiring freeze for two years. The result was more work sent to independent contractors instead of unionized employees who live and raise families in the province.
At about the same time, the Conservatives introduced legislation to freeze public employee salaries for two years. It never passed, but it served as a de-facto wage freeze. Contract negotiators for the province either stalled or wouldn’t agree to a wage increase, arguing that the legislation was pending.
“We’ve seen so much interference during these last seven years, with the government directing the utility how to run the business with no merit whatsoever,” Espenell said. “We’ve seen an erosion of service and a significant amount of inefficiencies as a result.”
Winnipeg Local 435 includes a bargaining unit of about 100 technicians employed by Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries. It was scheduled to begin negotiations on a new contract in late October, Business Manager Joe Breland said.
“The previous government was very anti-union and not supportive of middle-class workers’ needs at all,” Breland said. “Our members are optimistic that the NDP will be more receptive to addressing cost-of-living increases.”
Local 2085 Business Manager Dave McPhail called Kinew a friend — to him personally and to the entire labour movement.
“He has what we need,” McPhail said. “He listens to the people of Manitoba. Now we’re going to be heard, and I couldn’t be happier.”
With little input from the IBEW and other trades, the Conservatives passed legislation calling for two apprentices for one journeyman or Red Seal electrician on a jobsite. McPhail said the IBEW is asking NDP to change that to a one apprentice-two journeymen or Red Seal ratio. That will improve safety on the job and provide more instruction for those learning the electrical trade.
McPhail expects the new government to be more receptive to the IBEW’s request to start a training program for power line technicians, something Conservatives long resisted. The NDP also won’t pursue the elimination of a minimum wage for construction workers, something proposed by the Conservatives earlier this year.
“We’ve got a lot of good things to say,” McPhail said. “Now that we have the ear of the people in power, it will help us immensely.”
Brandon Dyck, an international representative in government affairs and renewable energy who helped get out the vote in Manitoba, said voters were tired of the Conservatives’ austerity measures. Hospitals and other infrastructure were crumbling while the government sat on a budget surplus.
“It was awesome to watch,” Dyck said of campaigning. “The feeling on the ground and knocking on doors was that everyone was ready for change.”
IBEW leaders in Manitoba said the Conservatives’ disdain for labour was fully apparent in 2019, the 100-year anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike.
Many Conservatives left the legislative chamber or openly mocked union members who visited the capital for ceremonies to commemorate it, Shewchuk said.
“That just summed up that government’s outlook on the working class,” he said.
Many of those same voters helped show them the exit door on Election Day.
Newly elected Manitboa Premier Wab Kinew, third from left, stands with Winnipeg Local 2034 Business Manager Mike Espenell, center, and other labour leaders in the province.