The territorial and the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) will begin mediation talks this Thursday in hopes of reaching a collective bargaining agreement as the threat of a strike looms.
Vince Ready, a Vancouver-based mediator that has settled more than 7,000 labour and commercial disputes including the 1992 Giant Mine labour dispute, will facilitate the talks scheduled to take place from Oct. 25 to 27. Ready was mutually-appointed by both parties last June.
The union represents more than 4,000 territorial government employees who have been without a bargaining deal for over two years.
So far, bargaining talks have stalled on proposed wage increases for government workers. The union has asked for a three per cent salary increase over four years but has said they are willing to negotiate. The government is looking to sign a four-year collective agreement with no wage increases for the first two years followed by a one per cent increase in the third year and a 1.1 per cent increase in the final year.
“The union is quite interested in getting a fair deal, we measure our success by achieving cost of living increases, normally that would be tied to the consumer price index in Canada,” said Parsons. “I did share that the union is prepared to negotiate, (three per cent) was our opening position at the start of bargaining.”
The Consumer Price Index for Yellowknife increased by 2.2 per cent between September 2017 and September of this year.
The GNWT declined interview requests before mediation talks began but did release a statement saying it is “committed to achieving a fair and fiscally responsible collective agreement.”
The government is arguing a three per cent increase over four years isn’t affordable. Parsons said his most recent bargaining package, priced at $14 million, is not too expensive for a government that he says should be cutting down on the cost of infrastructure projects built mainly by a southern workforce. He didn’t specify what infrastructure projects but past reports have included the $350 million Stanton Territorial Hospital rebuild, which was criticized for relying on public-private partnerships and workers from the south.
“To use it’s operational surpluses that are in excess of $100 million each year and recently reported that this fiscal year are north of $200 million that a bargaining position of $14 million is not onerous for this government,” said Parsons “It’s better to invest here at home in your communities than to invest 100 per cent into infrastructure alone. It has to be a balanced approach because to be clear, the UNW supports infrastructure investment but not 100 per cent.”
The union has said a strike is a worse-case scenario and it will do all it can to avoid one but if needed, it will be ready to do so once the mediator has released his report. That report is required to be released 14 days after this week’s talks conclude.
The GNWT stated it has begun to make the necessary preparations in case the union calls for a strike.
“The GNWT also recognizes its responsibilities to the residents of the NWT and all departments continue to actively prepare for the possibility that the UNW may choose to exercise its right to strike should no agreement be reached,” stated Department of Finance spokesperson Todd Sasaki in an e-mail.
Legally a strike cannot be called by the union until an ‘Essential and Emergency’ agreement exists between the GNWT and UNW to ensure vital and emergency services can continue to be administered in the territory. That agreement has been sent to an arbitrator and Parson said it will have that plan ready for when mediation begins.
In addition to the gap in wage increases, the union is looking to increase job security by limiting the usage of relief workers over full-time positions. In 2017, the GNWT addressed the use of relief workers by amending the definition of these employees. Relief employees are positions that report to work on an as-and-when basis that has no established working days or hours.
“This proposal will allow the use of relief employees in all operations across government, rather than just those where the particular services operate continuously throughout the year,” states the government’s 2017 package proposal to the union.
Relief workers are currently employed in areas of essential services such as nurses with the Department of Health Social Services and correctional workers with the Department of Justice. According to the government’s proposal they would like to expand the use of relief employees across all departments to include relief forest fighters, parks officers, custodians, sheriff officers and surveyors.
“Expanding the use of relief employees today, the union remains very concerned that 25 per cent of the workforce is casual, relief and term employees, the union’s preference is to see full-time and indeterminate positions,” said Parsons.
The union argues an expansion would see a number of relief positions that do not have full benefits take the place of full-time positions, a claim that the government refutes in its proposal.
“One of the concerns raised by the UNW is that by agreeing to the GNWT proposals on relief employees, full-time employees would be replaced by relief employees. This is not the case,” states the GNWT’s proposal.
According to a summary of outstanding negotiation issues on the Department of Finance’s website, the government has proposed to turn term employees into full-time employees when they have been in the same position for 36 months, the union has asked for that change to happen after 24 months.
The union is asking for an increase of $500 to northern living allowances while the GNWT has proposed a $250 increase. The union is also asking for increased mental health services to implemented across the GNWT.