Municipality sues CUPE over water claims 

Both sides say they are still committed to reaching an agreement

The Resort Municipality of Whistler is suing CUPE over statements the union has made claiming that the town’s water is unsafe.

"We felt that the CUPE statements have been harmful to the community…," said RMOW spokeswoman Diana Waltmann.

"We asked for a retraction and (the union) did not respond to us in any way so we are taking this step to defend the community from harm."

The statements in question were published in a press release June 9. In it officials representing the wastewater treatment workers, utilities workers and bylaw officers in Whistler stated: "It is our moral obligation to warn residents and visitors of the public safety risks they face in Whistler."

"CUPE 2010 is purchasing newspaper ads … to warn residents and visitors of the potential risk of visiting Whistler and drinking the water during this labour dispute."

Twenty-five members of Local 2010 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees have been without a collective agreement for more than two years and have been on limited strike action since mid February.

CUPE workers are looking for a $4,000 cost of living allowance to offset the high cost of living in a resort town. They are also fighting against the rollback of benefits.

The union press release also stated: "Recently a water meter failed for 45 minutes before it was discovered, allowing thousands of gallons of untreated surface water into the Whistler water system, posing a health risk for the young, elderly and immune-compromised individuals."

Waltmann was adamant that the resort’s water supply is safe and she pointed out that the surface water contamination referred to by CUPE in their June 9 press release occurred Jan. 27 before any job action took place. (The resort’s water is tested regularly by the Ministry of Health and the results are posted at www.healthspace.ca/vch

Since the press release was issued Waltmann said references have been found to it on tourism related websites.

"One example was ‘hotels.online.com’," said Barrett Fisher president of Tourism Whistler.

"And we have been contacted by many fellow tourism contacts who have noticed this and have asked questions about it…. It sets a perception out there that is not accurate and we have grave concerns about it."

Fisher said Tourism Whistler is not interested in wading into the ongoing labour dispute.

"This is not about our taking sides," said Fisher.

"This is strictly about an issue that undermines Whistler’s reputation and it’s absolutely unacceptable.

"Our sole focus is to ensure that we promote the brand of Whistler and that we protect the integrity of the brand image and our reputation."

Mediation has taken place between CUPE and the municipality but has been unsuccessful so far.

The writ filed in B.C. Supreme Court Tuesday seeking damages is also calling for an injunction against the union, "…from disseminating false statements regarding the integrity of the water…"

It names as defendants not only CUPE’s B.C. Division, but also Local 2010, Robin Jones, the author of the press release and chief negotiator, and Peter Davidson, president of Local 2010.

Davidson could not comment on the legal proceedings but he said the local union is still committed to negotiating for a fair deal.

"We’re unchanged," he said. "We’re committed to getting a fair contract for our members. This isn’t going to deter us from reaching that goal."

Despite the decision to sue, Waltmann said the municipality is also still committed to mediation with the union and wants a resolution to the issues.

CUPE president Barry O’Neill, reached in Montreal said: "This is a significant surprise for us.

"But if this is what the municipality thinks they should do for the reputation of Whistler then we will have to deal with that appropriately.

"I think it is bad for the community. I think it is bad for the province, but if that is how they feel the proper way to deal with it (is) then so be it."

O’Neill said he was disappointed that the dispute, which he has personally offered to work on, has not been settled. And he fears this move by the resort will elevate the issue to a national and international level.

"There is no intent by us to hurt the municipality," said O’Neill.

"When you are in a labour dispute people sometimes say things that are what they may not want to have said.

"But, yes we are concerned about the water program in Whistler…we will make an issue of water because it is important to all of the taxpayers in Whistler."

O’Neill said CUPE did consider writing an apology.

CUPE has 14 days to file their statement of defence.

With files from Alison Taylor.

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