Academic journal article Manitoba History

Labour Conflict during Construction of the Kelsey and Grand Rapids Hydroelectric Generating Stations

Academic journal article Manitoba History

Labour Conflict during Construction of the Kelsey and Grand Rapids Hydroelectric Generating Stations

Article excerpt

In late 1966, construction unions, contractors, and Manitoba Hydro agreed to a far-reaching, long-term contract that covered every aspect of labour relations related to the construction of a hydroelectric generating station at Kettle Rapids on the Nelson River in northern Manitoba. Two terms of the contract provisions stand out: the requirement that all workers on the project be union members and the fact that the contract was to be in place until the project was completed. In other words, there would be no strikes and no lockouts until the job was completed. Wages were to be based on the union rates negotiated in Winnipeg; any increases negotiated to those rates were to be applied to the Kettle Rapids rates. (1) This agreement evolved into the Burntwood/Nelson Agreement, a 397-page contract that continues to apply to hydro development in northern Manitoba. (2)

The decision to build the Kettle Rapids project as an all-union job without requiring the unions to go through a confrontational organizing and certification process represented a significant change from the approach that government, Manitoba Hydro, and contractors had taken to other large-scale projects in northern Manitoba. (3) The construction of the Kelsey and Grand Rapids hydro stations had been marked by conflicts and controversies that proved embarrassing to both the provincial government and Manitoba Hydro. The 1966 decision to adopt a master agreement is best understood in light of the history of the construction of those projects. The telling of that history will also retrieve long-forgotten stories of labour conflicts, particularly those affecting Aboriginal workers.

The Kelsey Project 1957-1961

While the hydroelectric potential of the Nelson River had been identified in the early 20th century, it took the 1956 discovery of a rich nickel ore body near Moak Lake, Manitoba, some 680 kilometres north of Winnipeg, to trigger the construction of a generating station. In 1957, the International Nickel Company (INCO) commenced work on both the development of the mine site and the establishment of a new community, Thompson, Manitoba. Both the mine and the new community required a dependable high-volume supply of electricity. The Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board agreed to develop a generating station at a site on the Nelson River 100 km from Thompson. At the time of its construction, it was the most northerly hydroelectric generating station in North America.

The $45-million contract for the construction of the project was awarded to McNamara Construction of Toronto and Brown and Root, a Texas-based construction company. Built between 1957 and 1961, the station produced an initial output of 160 megawatts. INCO provided the Hydro board with a long-term $20-million loan to help underwrite construction costs. In exchange, the mining company was to receive power at cost. A newly built spur rail line connected the Thompson townsite with Thicket Portage on the Hudson Bay railway (the main rail line through the North.) A 22-km rail line was built from Pit Siding, Manitoba to the Kelsey site. Much of the first year of construction was devoted to earth moving and the construction of the cofferdam, which created and protected an enclosure of land across the river on which the generating station was to be built. In the fall of 1958, the first concrete was poured and by the end of 1960, four of the five generating units were in service. The project was completed by the following year. The height of the fall in the Nelson River at that point had been increased from its natural level of 20 feet to 55 feet. (4)

In bidding for the contract to construct the Kelsey project, companies were instructed to "prepare their tenders on the basis that the Fair Wage Schedule of the Fair Wage Act, of the Province of Manitoba, for Zone A, in effect on 1 May 1957, shall apply at the site of the work for the duration of the project, with respect to wages and hours of work, but that a fifty-four-hour week will be worked. …

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