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‘Something is terribly wrong’: Municipality of Shelburne, union heading to arbitration after grievances filed-staff resign

['Shelburne Municipal Court House.']
['Shelburne Municipal Court House.']

The Municipality of Shelburne will be going into arbitration in December to respond at least six grievances relating to staffing issues.

In the past year, there has been a large turnover of staff, some of whom have been employed almost 20 years by the municipality. Five employees handed in their resignation and two employees are on banked sick time.

At the end of July, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1928 union, which represents municipal staff, served a 48-hour strike notice.

In a letter addressed to the council, the union's business manager, James Sponagle, said the respectful atmosphere of the workplace has “eroded dramatically” over the year.

“Council members need to be aware of an alarming increase in insecurity and lack of communication with employees, giving them a sense that they are not valued or appreciated,” reads the letter.


‘Unbearable’ conditions

When an employee was questioned by the Tri-County Vanguard about what was happening at the office, she burst into tears but refused to comment.

One of the staffers that recently walked off her job of almost 20 years said the atmosphere at work became "unbearable." She says the situation threatened her mental health and wellbeing.

The woman, who spoke to the Tri-County Vanguard on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals, said the situation was difficult to explain but feels the staff was kept in the dark on matters that directly affect them.

“Everything was a secret,” she says. “You didn’t know what was going to happen until it happened.”

She says the staff there have always been a small group of people who have worked well together.

“This last year has been the lowest morale that has ever been there,” she says.

“I didn’t think I would be leaving now, I really thought this would be the place I retire from. We had benefits, medical, pension, paid vacation and a good wage. If it was one or two people I’d think maybe it was just me…something is terribly wrong and needs to be fixed.”

She says there were few places for staff to turn to discuss their worries. The human resources position has been vacant for more than a year.


Grievances not valid: McNeill

The Municipality of Shelburne's chief administrative officer, Chris McNeill, says there have been four days set aside for arbitration in December.

He also says that the municipality's lawyer has reviewed the grievances and believes they are not valid.

But, he says, there are ways both management and staff can work together better.

“It’s been a tough year,” says McNeill.

When he began in September 2016, McNeill was instructed by council to conduct an organizational review and report back.

“They wanted to know if we had the right people with the right training to provide the right services,” says McNeill.

He says he met with each staff member, reviewed background experience and reviewed all the information with the council.

The review lasted three months. McNeill says the anxiety level at the municipal office was higher than normal because of that process.

Also while the review was ongoing, the municipality began the process of negotiating the collective agreement with the union - an agreement that wouldn't be signed until Sept. 7.


'Constituents are footing the bill'

Sponagle says the numbers are a telling story.

“Local 1928 represents 1,600 members working for a number of employers, big and small," he said.

"For those 1,600 members, there are currently 20 active grievance investigations and eight grievances have been referred to arbitration; six of those eight grievances involve the Municipality of the District of Shelburne in respect of a bargaining unit of only 15 people. And constituents are footing the bill.”

McNeill says management is listening to what staff is saying, adding the misperception may be due to the fact that management often met behind closed doors to attempt to solve problems.

“Ultimately, you want happy and proud employees,” he says.

The municipality, he said, is in the process of hiring a new staff member in human resources who will also work in financing.

It has also reached out to Morneau Shepell, a human resource service based out of Toronto, to review the workplace environment and give feedback to management. That process began in July.

As a part of the process, confidential discussions, through an online survey, are taking place between Morneau Shepell and municipal staff. The next step is an in person meeting.

McNeill said management would receive a report when the process is complete.

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