Not to be melodramatic but the Northwest Territories stands on the edge of a precipice this week.
The Union of Northern Workers, after months of bluster, appears resigned to finally having to making good on its threat to strike this Monday. Approximately 4,000 territorial government and NWT Power Corporation workers will be off the job — or on reduced hours if deemed essential — and on the picket lines across the territory. Final mediation talks are scheduled to resume Friday but few people in the territory believe they will be successful in preventing the potential disaster that awaits.
To put things in perspective, of the approximately 21,400 people employed in the Northwest Territories, according to the NWT Bureau of Statistics, nearly a fifth of them will be suddenly out of a job, living on $117 a day strike pay or less, if government workers hit the bricks.
Some might find temporary jobs during the strike but how many vacant positions will there be with one-fifth of the workforce on strike? Certainly very few. And they won’t pay anything remotely comparable to the wages and benefits that GNWT and power corp. workers enjoy now.
A strike will hurt everyone, from the mom and pop restaurants catering to government workers at lunch time to the government workers themselves faced with unemployment during the most difficult time of the year to make ends meet.
Both the union and GNWT are acutely aware of this.
The UNW has been putting off the nuclear option ever since its underwhelming strike vote last March, which we learned earlier this week may have registered as few as 50 per cent of rank and file GNWT workers. The fewer than 70 per cent who apparently voted to strike was already a weak mandate, but its much weaker if only half the workers voted.
The union would have been wiser to admit defeat and accept the GNWT’s terms after last year’s borderline strike vote but here we are, at the 11th hour, with nothing less than the territory’s economy on the line.
The GNWT has assumed all along that it has been operating from a position of strength but it is only strong as long as there is no strike. Its memo to workers Tuesday, following the union’s strike announcement, suggesting they could cross picket lines and continue to work if they want to is pure fantasy. Premier Bob McLeod got a taste of what’s to come Tuesday night when he got chased out of his own constituency meeting by hardcore unionists.
How many GNWT workers will have the fortitude to cross a picket line? Never mind the potential for fines, punishment and other nastiness the union might prescribe to wayward members. Yellowknife is still a small community. People would have to be very desperate to put themselves through the shame and humiliation of crossing picket lines while their colleagues and co-workers are marching outside in the freezing cold.
Moreover, while there has hardly been an appetite to strike by ordinary GNWT workers, feelings have hardened with the government’s refusal to entertain the UNW’s offer of putting the dispute to binding arbitration. Yes, the offer reeks of hypocrisy. The UNW rejected a proposal to seek a third-party arbitrator just six years ago during its labour dispute with the Town of Fort Smith. It’s a desperate move but the UNW is at least showing that it understands the consequences should everybody jump off the cliff. The GNWT, on the hand, appears content to sail right off of it — consequences be damned.
The government is operating under the assumption that it can break the union quickly and bring the UNW to terms. That is a mistake piled on a bed of hubris. There is no telling how long a strike will go on for once it begins.
Even if the union folds and the GNWT avoids paying for wage increases and other union demands, it will have greatly damaged its standing with workers and the public. It will have exposed itself as being willing to risk the livelihoods of Northerners over a decimal point.
There is only way out of this dangerous game and binding arbitration is it. MLAs must vote Friday to accept it.