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Looming strike threatens agricultural water supply
The Town of Oliver is claiming last week’s vote in favour of a strike by municipal employees will hold farmers “hostage.”
Following a breakdown in mediated negotiations to renew the collective agreement, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 608 voted on strike action on Wednesday. The collective agreement expired on Dec. 31, 2010. The union, which represents 24 workers in Oliver, has yet to formally announce when, or if, strike action will take place.
“Striking and withdrawing services is always a last resort, but the union is very close to that last option,” said Rachel Champagne, CUPE national representative and negotiator for CUPE 608. “In this case the employer is being completely unreasonable. They have chosen to put taxpayers’ money in the pocket of a hired negotiator, who doesn’t even live in Oliver, over the hard-working city employees who live in this community.”
CUPE says one of the outstanding issues is wages, and that management and council each gave themselves a 2.9 per cent wage increase. The difference in cost between the last offer tabled by the employer and the last offer tabled by the union is less than $5,000.
The Town of Oliver said as part of a strategy to force demands on the local community, CUPE has refused to acknowledge the importance of Oliver’s agricultural irrigation water supply as an essential service. Champagne reports the Labour Relations Board confirmed there has never been an essential services order for the Town of Oliver.
“By fighting an essential service designation by the Labour Relations Board for agricultural water supply, Oliver’s municipal employees are attempting to hold local farmers hostage to satisfy their wage demands,” said Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes. “This is a major concern for council as the town is responsible for providing water to the entire community, including the farming sector. We will continue to exercise all avenues available to pursue a favourable decision by the LRB, and failing that, to keep water flowing using management staff.”
Hovanes said an application will be filed by Oliver to the Labour Relations Board asking for agricultural water to be deemed an essential service. On Friday, the mayor said it could take up to two weeks to get that decision.
The town supplies water for not just Oliver, but the rural Oliver area as well. The northern part of Oliver has yet to be phased into the twinning project and Hovanes said about 100 homes in the summer use the agricultural water from the canal as domestic water. The mayor said “timing is critical” now as annual canal maintenance is slated to take place the first week of April.
“Our big concern here is the union position is they are going to seek that agricultural water is not an essential service, and for us, that is a non-starter. You have to understand we are a huge farming community. We have thousands of acres under fruit and vegetable production and vineyard production is huge,” said Hovanes.
The Town of Oliver has committed to get water to farmers should there be a union strike and the LRB deems agricultural water non-essential. Hovanes said management staff will have to carry out the canal maintenance.
“Will it be easy? Probably not, but they will do their very best, and it is our commitment to make sure our farmers have water. We want the farmers and rural partners to realize this is what we are dealing with in negotiations and we felt it was the time that they need to know,” said Hovanes.