EDITORIAL: A strike averted

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This edition of News/North has a special focus on labour. Now for some people, labour equals unions. But not all blue-collar workers are part of the organized labour movement.

Many toil away as sole entrepreneurs, or members of small businesses providing a trade or a service. Labour can be hired by the hour, day, week, or be full or part time.

So what’s the difference between labour and organized labour? Well, for the purpose of this editorial, the latter in the NWT means the Union of Northern Workers (UNW). While there are several other unions represented in the territory, the UNW is the big dog.

The 50-year-old UNW represents approximately 5,700 members in a couple of dozen locals. It is part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). Its members work for the NWT Power Corporation, the Ekati Diamond Mine, in various municipal governments, housing authorities and private contracting firms.

And the Government of the Northwest Territories.

As of Jan. 31, 2019, there were 4,924 members of the UNW’s bargaining unit in the GNWT.

And the two groups were locked in a brutal fight for a new contract, that had lasted far too long, in our view. The union and the GNWT had been negotiating a new collective agreement since January 2016.

And last winter, both sides were clearly exasperated. To the point where in February, dozens of UNW members showed up unexpectedly at Premier Bob McLeod’s constituency meeting.

It was the same day a strike notice had been handed out to the GNWT, with another later given to the Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC).

It wasn’t just union members that were feeling uncertain during the labour strife.

A strike by UNW workers would have paralyzed the territory and put a choke-hold on our business community.

The major employers in the NWT are federal, territorial and municipal governments, with the GNWT far and above the largest of them all. Those are followed by resource development, tourism, manufacturing and various forms of retail.

With only managers able to perform the barest minimum of tasks – of course, there were several categories of essential services, such as hospital workers – the services provided to people and business would evaporate during a strike. With striking UNW members earning only strike pay while on the picket line, they wouldn’t be spending money as they normally would.

In the end, after working with a mediator, the UNW and GNWT agreed to accept “binding recommendations” from mediator Vince Ready in late March.

While the five-year agreement was backdated to April 1, 2016, workers received no salary increase in the first two years. That will be followed by increases for the last three years of 1.6 percent on April 1, 2018, 2.3 per cent on April 1, 2019, and 2.5 per cent on April 1, 2020. In addition, the Northern Allowance base went up $250. There were also a few non-monetary items in the new pact.

Was that really worth all the energy and worry? In any event, the winner in calling off the strike was everybody who lives and works in the NWT. A strike would’ve been terrible for everybody.

The NWT’s 19th legislative assembly will have to keep top of mind that the two parties are three years into the new contract.

The new deal lapses at the end of March 2021.

For the sake of the entire territory, don’t doddle and both of you: please play nice.

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