If territorial government workers had an extra spring in their steps Monday morning, they could hardly be blamed. They were going back to work after all.
It was a far cry from Saturday afternoon, when many GNWT workers in the city were under the impression that they would be out in the cold this week picketing the homes of their MLAs, while workers living in constituencies where MLAs voted in favour of binding arbitration last week would be back in their warm offices – at least while rolling strikes continued.
It was an odd situation driven by weeks of rising rhetoric from both the Union of Northern Workers and the GNWT, which have been at loggerheads for nearly three years.
The lack of movement for the benefit of the entire territory brought about confusion, anger, and desperation among residents because it forced them to identify with one of two sides — a choice few wanted to make. If we go by comments Yellowknifer heard on Saturday, few wanted to risk months on end in a strike for what was being bargained.
Few still have any idea of what picketing would have meant to their lives or their relationships with the community. And yet Saturday gave us a good taste of how fragile Yellowknife’s economy is because in short, we are a company town and that company is the GNWT.
Fortunately, disaster was averted – at least for now. The two sides have been without an agreement for almost as long as a typical bargaining agreement lasts. Mediator Vince Ready will come up with a compromise that will not please everybody but hopefully not relight passions anew. But what happens when this one expires?
If he recommends a four-year agreement like the one proposed by the GNWT, we will be back at it again next year, with even more confusion, distrust, and hard feelings.
This isn’t just an issue for the GNWT and the union, but for everybody in the Northwest Territories who counts on a smoothly functioning government.
It’s an election year and MLA candidates will be out on the hustings and talking to voters. They will want to talk about issues, such as the high cost of living, education and health care.
But what is also needed is a vision for not only what government can do, but how the government functions. How do we balance the needs of nearly 4,000 unionized government employees with the needs of the rest of the territory?
Throughout negotiations the GNWT claimed it couldn’t afford wage and salary demands made by the union. But it’s clear the territory can’t risk a GNWT strike either.
This a problem looking for a solution. Hopefully this year’s crop of candidates will have some ideas.