Tensions between the Town of Ponoka and its union staff have come to a head.
Ponoka union employees with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) held a strike vote Wednesday night at the Ponoka Legion with the vast majority voting in favour of a strike. It’s believed about four people did not vote.
This vote affects 62 members. Of the 62 eligible votes, 60 voted (96.7 per cent) with all but one voting against a strike, while one of the ballots were spoiled.
From here, the union has to give the town 72 hours notice before a strike is called. Discussion with the AUPE is that holding a strike during Ponoka Stampede week would be a way of leveraging the town to take action and meet the recommendations of the mediator. At the time, those recommendations were accepted by the town and union negotiators.
For Karen Weiers, AUPE vice-president, a decision of this nature doesn’t just affect staff members. “This affects the whole community,” she said.
“This is a collective agreement that affects not only the members involved, but also their families, their livelihoods.”
She says there are many dedicated workers in Ponoka who feel disrespected, something that Weiers feels needs to be looked at closely.
“This group of hardworking, dedicated employees have given up a lot in order to reach a point that they thought they had a tentative agreement,” said Weiers. “And for it to be totally shunned by the mayor and council said a lot to what we saw tonight.”
Relations, which were already tense, became exacerbated when council turned down the agreed on proposal from the mediator.
Tensions further increased with town staff when Mayor Rick Bonnett made a notice of motion considering severance or salary increases for town councillors. That motion appears to have solidified workers’ resolve.
“We’ve got a mayor that has turned down collective things in the agreement that he is bringing forward (for council), such as severance packages,” said Weiers.
Ponoka News does have information from the summary of the mediation proposal, which points out that the union and the town met several times after the collective agreement ended Dec. 31, 2016. In 2017 the groups met several times: Jan. 18 and 25, April 4 and then Sept. 12. After that the AUPE applied for mediation and a provincial mediator, Alan Konkin, was appointed by the province.
Mediation meetings were held Jan. 2 and 3, 2018. The mediation process then continued on May 7 after both groups revisited their positions. A resolution was not met.
“As a result of the information provided to me during mediation, it is my opinion that releasing a Mediator’s Recommendation is the next appropriate step in moving this matter to resolution,” stated Konkin in his summary.
Among the recommendations included a signing bonus of $800 for full time employees, $400 for part time and $200 for casual.
There would be no salary increase for year one (2017), a 1.95 per cent increase for year 2 (2018) — this is the same formula for the town’s electrical employees under the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — and 1.75 per cent increase for year three (2019).
Other recommendations involved days off.
Regular benefit-earning employees shall be entitled to five paid personal leave days along with the $500 per year health spending account being converted into a flexible health and wellness account.
The disconnect between town staff and council came as a surprise to Weiers, who said the mediation proposal appeared to have a solution.
It is not known what the exact severance package outlined for town staff was, however, it appears council wasn’t interested in that part of the discussion.
Adding to the frustration for the union was the feeling that the union staff would be in favour of the proposal.
Ken Cutrell, AUPE union negotiator, feels confident that the proposal from the mediator would have been approved. “My aim is always to get a deal that is satisfactory to both parties.”
What does a strike mean for the town and employees?
If staff strike they will not be paid, but their benefits must remain and employees’ jobs are protected.
“We don’t expect to get everything that we ask for, as employers don’t. That’s why it’s a negotiation,” said Cutrell, adding that the town’s credibility dropped after council turned down the proposal.
Cutrell says the main goal is not to have a strike but to have the two groups again come back to the table.
“We aren’t that far apart,” added Cutrell of the bargaining position.
More to come…