LABOUR VIEWS: Celebrating 50 years in the North

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Todd Parsons is president of the Union of Northern Workers. NNSL file photo

by Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers

This is an important year for the labour movement in the Northwest Territories as it marks the 50th anniversary of the Union of Northern Workers.

Back in 1967, Yellowknife became the capital of the NWT and the federal government began transferring responsibilities to the territorial government. Many of the first GNWT employees had previously been federal government employees and were members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. But as GNWT employees, they had no union and no collective agreement.

If workplace problems arose, workers approached the commissioner’s office on an individual basis. This was a frustrating and cumbersome way to deal with workplace issues and there was no collective strength in this approach. Approximately 100 NWT government employees began work to form what would become the NWT Territorial Employees Association.

In 1968, NWT Commissioner Stu Hodgson passed the NWT Public Service Association Act, which recognized the NWT Public Service Association as the bargaining agent for 1,000 GNWT employees. The group was certified in 1969 and the first GNWT collective agreement was signed on June 8, 1970.

The union was created as a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, a national union, so all UNW members are also members of PSAC.

In 1978, the union went on an organizing blitz – recognizing that many hamlet and housing association workers were making much less than their GNWT counterparts, and that a lot of public service jobs were being downloaded to local governments. The union organized 35 bargaining units in the NWT in 10 years.

Another busy 10 years passed. In 1988, the Union of Northern Workers Act was passed, and the name of the organization officially changed. Of course, the NWT still included Nunavut, and the union had many strong locals in the Eastern and High Arctic. Another big change was in 1998 when the members in Nunavut formed their own component, which worked well when Nunavut was created in 1999.

The members of the UNW have made many important and positive advancements for unionized workers over the years. Wages and working conditions improved for unionized workers through the strength of collective bargaining. In 1998 the Hay Plan, a gender-neutral pay evaluation system, was introduced into the collective agreement with the GNWT.

GNWT “Donny Days” which were originally a wage rollback by way of days off without pay, were negotiated by the UNW into paid days off over a couple of collective agreements. There was a huge win in 2002 when a pay equity human rights complaint championed by the Union was finally settled, resulting in government-wide reassessment of the value of many public service jobs, and many millions of dollars paid out to affected employees.

Over the years, the UNW has worked hard to be a strong community partner and supporter, through donations, scholarships, volunteer time and members’ buyers clubs with local businesses. The UNW and PSAC are world and local community leaders in social justice.

We have a lot to be proud of and 2019 is great a time to celebrate! Keep your eyes and ears open for 50th anniversary events that are being planned for all the regions.

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