Village of Harrison workers were on the picket line Monday morning after serving a strike notice to the Village on Friday. (Submitted)

Deadlocked: Village of Harrison workers strike after negotiations fail

72-hour strike notice served Friday

Village of Harrison workers walked off the job Monday morning and were on the picket line after serving a strike notice to the Village 72 hours earlier.

In April, Village employees voted unanimously in favour of strike action after long-winded negotiations failed to resolve disagreements. But negotiations continued – primarily regarding hours – until June 29, when a final offer from the Village was rejected by workers. According to a media release from the workers’ union, CUPE 458, 14 out of 17 members participated, 86 per cent of which voted in favour of rejecting the final offer.

READ: Harrison workers reject final offer from Village

On July 4, a mediation session was held with the labour relations board to determine essential services during the strike, and both CUPE 458 and the Village of Harrison confirmed that vital services like water and sewer services will carry on, uninterrupted.

CUPE 458 represents 17 municipal Harrison workers who provide a wide range of services including water and wastewater, snow removal, public works and administrative services at the Village Hall.

A large number of public services, like curbside garbage and recycling services, animal control and planning are privately contracted out and will be unaffected by the strike, said Madeline McDonald, Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for the Village of Harrison.

“The remainder of the work – the grounds keeping and the maintenance of the Village from the public works standpoint will have to be undertaken by exempt management personnel,” she added.

In total, that’s three management personnel covering the work of 13 Village employees. While the union does cover 17 members, two will continue providing essential services, one is a casual employee and one is currently on maternity leave.

“I have no doubt that the standard of care with our groundskeeping and our landscaping is going to suffer somewhat over the duration of the strike,” said McDonald. “But we’ve taken some proactive measures like curtailing irrigation on some of the lawns to inhibit growth, save water and deter geese.”

And because some of the bargaining members provide administrative work, the Village of Harrison’s office hours may be curtailed – restricted from 10 a.m.- 2 p.m.

In a twist surprising both the Village and festival organizers, the workers have set up picket lines at Harrison’s Memorial Hall, creating problems for the 40th annual Festival of the Arts which had to move Monday’s night’s performance by Shane Koyczan to St. Alice Hall down the street – but that venue couldn’t be used and the performance was moved again to the Harrison Lake Hotel.

Harrison Festival Society executive director Andy Hillhouse said Koyczan, a union supporter, didn’t want to cross the picket line, and it’s likely that other performers will feel the same way.

“The rest of the festival is a big question mark,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we might not have a venue.”

Although an entirely separate entity from the Village of Harrison, the festival is bound by provincial and federal grant funding, so the festival society can’t take any sides in the dispute, said Hillhouse.

“As an organization, all we’re trying to do is put on the festival.”

CUPE 458 vice president Darlene Worthylake told the Observer that the workers care about the impact on the festival, but need to get the Village to the bargaining table.

“We are making a commitment that if we get back to the table right now–today, tonight or tomorrow morning – we’ll remove the picket lines from the areas that impact the festival only,” she said.

Meeting in the middle

Monday morning’s strike follows tumultuous negotiations after a 24-year workers agreement expired in 2016. The agreement outlined a number of arrangements, most notably an agreement for a compressed work week, along side weekend scheduling of Village employees. The dissolving of that long-held agreement became a point of contention between the parties, leading to the strike notice served Friday.

“What we’re looking for is the flexibility to regularly schedule shifts on weekends because as a resort municipality, we really are a seven-days a week operation,” McDonald said. “So it’s our position that our workers need to be scheduled regularly on weekends for weekend work.”

The union allowed weekend scheduling under the terms of a Letter of Understanding (LOU) in the 25-year agreement that also provided the compressed work week.

“We find that the compressed work week doesn’t work operationally, so we’re not prepared to renew that letter of understanding,” McDonald said. “And that’s exactly what [this] is about.”

Worthylake said the union feels it is close to making a deal, and is more than prepared to “come back to table and have meaningful discussions with the employer and work out the issues.”

“We do want to find a solution to the dispute, we don’t want to see the Village suffer during the peak tourism season and we absolutely don’t want to see our members on the picket line,” Worthylake told the Observer. “The employer has denied our request to come back to the bargaining table. They have also denied our repeated request for remediation. We are at a loss and left with no choice but to do this.”

Worthylake stated that wages were never an issue, as mentioned previously in the Observer. She said the concern has always been scheduling and the expiration of the previous agreement.

“Our members have requested repeatedly that the employer understand and respect that we had an agreement for 24 years – an agreement that has worked well and saved the Village millions of dollars,” Worthylake said. “We are trying to come up with creative ideas. But it is a huge change for our members. Again, we are unable to come up with any solutions, because the employer won’t meet us at the bargaining table.”

But McDonald claims the parties did – at one point in time – reach an agreement that the bargaining committee agreed to present (with a recommendation to accept) to their membership. But according to the Village CAO, CUPE National advised workers not to let go of the compressed work week.

This intervention is the reason the Village is unwilling to continue negotiating at this time.

“We don’t feel that the bargaining committee is negotiating with us in good faith at the bargaining table,” said McDonald.

Resolution

According to Worthylake, the next steps have to be taken by the Village.

“We would like there to be next steps, we would like to get back to the bargaining table,” she said. “We are really, waiting on the employer. We are waiting for them to say: ‘yes let’s go to the bargaining table.’

We need the Village to be a little bit more flexible. Let’s work this out. Let’s seriously understand and compromise so that we can work out each other’s concerns.”

McDonald said the Village too, is hoping for resolution.

“Right now we’re just focusing on getting our essential services agreement up and running and practicing the new skill sets that we’ve trained for with respect to the grounds keeping,” McDonald said. “I’m sure this will get resolved – and hopefully sooner rather than later. I know both sides are hopeful for that.

Sometimes these things happen and we’re looking forward to getting back to normal at some point in the near future.”

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