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Something in the water maybe?

By Andrew Mitchell The confrontation between the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the RMOW took a turn for the worst last week when attempts at mediated talks broke down twice with no resolution. Then CUPE went too far.


By Andrew Mitchell

The confrontation between the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the RMOW took a turn for the worst last week when attempts at mediated talks broke down twice with no resolution.

Then CUPE went too far.

The union, which represents about 25 municipal sewage and water treatment workers as well as bylaw officers and utilities workers in Whistler, threatened to take out ads nationally and internationally warning people to stay away from Whistler because of concerns over the quality of the drinking water.

Of course, if you asked the union it wasn't a threat per se. "It is our moral obligation to warn residents and visitors of the public safety risks they face in Whistler," said CUPE national representative Robin Jones.

But it sure felt like one.

There's nothing wrong with the water, according to government reports. It gets monitored regularly and if any problems do show up then the public will be alerted immediately as measures are taken to correct the problem. Water is taken very seriously by all levels of government.

The actual employees who test water are not even allowed to go on full strike - they're as much an essential service as police, paramedics and doctors. The 'work to rule' job action is about as far as they can go without breaking the law.

So what was CUPE trying to pull? Were they really hoping to scare the people of Whistler into demanding that the municipality back their call for a $4,000 cost of living increase?

And in the process did they really want to kick the crutch out from under our slowly recovering tourism industry to drive home a point about affordability, effectively endangering the livelihoods of local businesses and thousands of resort workers?

I can't imagine local CUPE members supporting a warning that would hurt all of their neighbours who make their living off the tourism trade. Is the union really so out of touch with this community they're pretending to care about, or so blind to the kind of damage that these kinds of threats can cause?

Walkerton was not that long ago, after all, and we all saw what kind of impact the recent SARS outbreak had on Canadian tourism. This is not a threat to be taken lightly.

The municipality is on top of things. They have consulted lawyers on the issue, and developments should progress quickly this week.

I have heard CUPE has since issued an apology and a full retraction, but the Pique could not confirm that or find a copy of the statement for press time.

But even if CUPE pleads temporary insanity and begs Whistler for forgiveness, the damage may already be done. The story made its way into the CBC over the weekend and into The Province on Wednesday, which means it's only a matter of days before it's picked up nationally and then internationally.

Whistler has always been newsworthy, even before winning the Olympics - a snowball to the side of someone's head on New Year's Eve of 2001 became a national riot story in a matter of hours. The media likes it when Whistler succeeds, but loves it when we fail.

What news outlets will make warnings about a danger to our water supply can only be imagined at this point. Hopefully they will keep in context - an unfortunate allegation prompted by the intense negotiations between the municipality and the union - but I have my doubts.

Unions always play hardball. Teachers have gone on strike towards the end of the school year, adding urgency to negotiations by dangling end-of-year exams and college applications over our heads. NHL players refused to cave on their demands until the owners were finally at risk of canceling the entire season - a move which apparently backfired when last minute negotiations failed.

Other public sector groups have always scheduled strikes and job actions right around elections, forcing ruling parties and their challengers into a corner. Sometimes these tactics worked, and sometimes not.

When it comes to CUPE's warning, I have a feeling that this tactic will backfire, at least to the extent that the union can count on public support.

Warnings about water are not fair game in negotiations even if there is a grain of truth in what they are saying.

Water is the necessity of all necessities for life, and threats go to the heart of everyone - every parent, every pregnant family, every individual who trusts their life daily to whatever comes out off their taps will not take CUPE's statements lightly, or forgive the implications to the tourism industry.

On that note, it may be time for both parties to get back to the bargaining table, chain themselves to it, and not leave until they can reach a compromise and put this job action to an end.

It's not going to be easy - CUPE doesn't appear to be ready to renegotiate their cost-of-living increase, and the muni doesn't appear to want to give any kind of raise that could be classified as a cost-of-living allowance because of the implications it could have for the resort.

Digging in on opposite sides of the issue isn't helping anybody. Both sides have to bend a little, be a little realistic, and stop talking in absolutes.

And leave our water out of it.