Like most North American power companies, Hydro-Québec has been adapting its structures and operations since the mid-1990s. With the deregulation of the power market, the requirements of the American Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) are often given more weight than the needs of consumers or the rights of workers.
CUPE 1500, 2000 and 957, representing 14,000 Hydro-Québec workers, are determined to challenge this direction and oppose the corporate shift at Hydro-Québec. And they’ve come up with an innovative approach to exert pressure – a commercial strike aimed at the Crown corporation’s export and billing revenues.
“Hydro-Québec wanted to position itself as a major commercial actor in a $25 billion North American market,” explains Charles Paradis, CUPE’s bargaining coordinator. “So it negotiated an agreement in 1995 with its employees to reduce positions through attrition and accept wage reductions in exchange for future job guarantees and the reopening of wage negotiations for 1999 and 2000 so that everyone could benefit from the company’s profitability.”
“But when the time came to return the favour and for employees to get their fair share, Hydro-Québec – which claims to be independent of the provincial government – offered the same package the Bouchard government had presented its public employees. This falls far short of the 13 per cent the CUPE locals were seeking. Our members felt betrayed by Hydro-Québec’s false promises,” said Paradis.
Commercial strike launched
Far from giving up, the locals proposed a commercial strike aimed at all power exports – especially important during a summer of heat waves in the northeast US – and billing activities.
They knew that the strike could be a long one and that most of their members would be declared essential workers and therefore could not strike. But equally important, they knew that public support was important and did not want to antagonize residential and commercial customers after winning such respect during last year’s ice storm. So they organized to ensure that their members on the line were not suffering financially and targeted services that didn’t impact Québec customers.
“Since the members working in these areas represent only 10 to 12 cent of our membership, the others agreed to pay a special 10 per cent strike assessment to support their striking sisters and brothers and the job action began May 5,” said Paradis.
On July 4, in the middle of summer holidays, more than 1,000 members from across Québec met in Laval to reaffirm their rejection of the management proposals and their unanimous support for their bargaining team.
Since the strike began, Hydro-Québec has been trying to blame the workers for power failures in the domestic network. But the union has deflected the blame, pointing out that the management of the utility has chosen to concentrate its efforts on selling power outside the country rather than give priority to equipment maintenance.
An approach that might work with other companies
“Journalists have dubbed it a ‘surgical strike’ because it’s aimed at the heart of the company’s corporate strategy – that is to say its profits – without affecting Québec’s residential and commercial clients,” said Paradis.
At press time, it’s too soon to assess the impact of the strike but the experience will be closely evaluated in the months to come.
“This approach to job action will be closely examined to assess its effectiveness,” said Paradis. “It may also work with other corporations involved in the deregulation process as they scramble in a context of economic globalization to maximize their profits in foreign markets.”