One of those factors was the electricity deregulation movement that began in the U.S. in 1992. Ontario industry felt that breaking up and privatizing Ontario Hydro would accelerate competition and lead to lower industrial power rates, even though they were already paying rates that were among the lowest in North America.
Our Union began talking about the possible repercussions of Ontario Hydros wholesale privatization early in the decade, so when it began to be discussed publicly, we werent taken by surprise.
We concluded that wholesale privatization would initially be directed at Ontario Hydro and our membership would be in the midst of a significant battle with interests who would want to seriously restrict or eliminate our bargaining rights as part of the sell-off. We needed a strategy to move the target away form the negative impacts this would have on utility workers in Ontario and on our members who were going to be the first to be attacked.
We also had links with utility workers union in the U.S., where most utilities are investor-owned, so we had some appreciation of what dealing with privately owned power companies meant in practical terms, as a Union.
In developing our strategy for a public campaign against Ontario Hydros wholesale privatization, we believed we had to position ourselves as not being opposed to privatization on ideological grounds but rather on the grounds that the excellent work our members did in providing electricity required a smooth transition to ensure these vital skills would not be compromised in any way.
We also knew that we could not be opposed to competition, because of the deeply rooted North American belief that competition is fundamentally a good thing for consumers. We knew that a campaign to persuade the public that competition in electricity would be bad for them and would probably fail. But in addition to that, we believed that competition was inevitable in Ontario, since its economy is so integrated with that of the U.S.
Moreover, we had reason to believe that an open North American electricity marketplace would actually benefit our members because Ontario had excess generating capacity, most of which is non-polluting, and interties with key industrial U.S. states, where most of the power is coal-generated. We believed then, and we believe it even more now, after further analysis, that there are more jobs for our members in a competitive electricity marketplace of 300 million people in North America that in a closed market place of only 11 million people in Ontario.
Once we decided that our sole objective was to stop the wholesale privatization to save our collective agreements, we knew that we would be accused of merely trying to protect our own jobs. So it was essential that we blunted those criticisms by having an objective basis for asserting that the public interest was best served by a managed change to a competitive electricity market.
For this reason, our first step was to commission a considerable amount of research form respected academics and economic research firms and then we implemented a proactive media campaign to establish our credibility on the issue.
Shortly after our campaign began, the provincial government appointed a high-level advisory committee to study the issue of what to do with Ontarios electricity system. This committee conducted public hearings around the province and also commissioned a great deal of research before it released its report six months later.
The committees report recommended the introduction of competition, which we expected, but it also called for the privatization of the majority of Ontario Hydros generating stations.
To the surprise of most observers, the government made no comment on the committees report until more than one year later, when it issued a White Paper setting out its legislative intentions for electricity system reforms. And in that White Paper, and the legislation that followed it, privatization was not mentioned and even the Minister of Energy publicly supported the continuing public ownership. The report also emphasized the need to consider the smooth transition for employees to a competitive electricity sector because of the value the current employees represented to the utility sector in Ontario. In other words, our campaign worked.
There have been delays announced in opening of competitive market in Ontario and that indicates to us that the government and major stakeholders are giving careful consideration to the implications of competition.
When that competition begins, it will not be chaotic; our members jobs will not be lost; and the public will not have lost ownership over some of its most valuable assets, assets that will, in fact, grow in value as more of our non-polluting power is sold to the U.S.
I want to stress that our Union is not opposed to private sector participation in the power industry. In fact, we welcome it because its the only way the industry is going to expand and more jobs are created. And we are particularly interested in public sector-private sector partnerships that would bring new investment into the industry and, therefore, more jobs.
We also understand that there are significant issues ahead with the introduction of competition and the transfer of some of Ontario Power Generations facilities to the private sector to enhance competition. But we have collective agreements in place that include workable processes to consider the human side of ownership changes.
On the wires side, the series of corporate mergers, amalgamations and acquisitions can actually strengthen the labour movement thanks to fact that bargaining rights are protected and that the end result is bigger bargaining units with more bargaining leverage.
In conclusion, the challenges ahead for utility workers in Ontario are significant. However, with the right amount of coordination and a clear understanding that our world is changing, the are equal opportunities to build a stronger labour movement in the Ontario electricity sector.