As possible UNW strike looms, MLAs get a raise

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As the union representing territorial government workers threatens to strike over stagnant wages, MLAs received a raise.

On April 1, the basic salary of all MLAs rose $1,662 to $105,513.

This 1.6 per cent wage hike is in line with the 1.6 per cent average increase in 2017 to the consumer price index.

Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers, speaks to protesters outside the legislative assembly in March. The union representing GNWT employees is demanding wage increases and enhanced job security for its members.
Sidney Cohen/NNSL photo

For about a decade, MLA salaries have been automatically adjusted each year by the same percentage as that of the increase or decrease to the previous year’s consumer price index.

Danielle Mager, spokesperson for the legislative assembly, said this practice is consistent with other jurisdictions in Canada.

But in March of 2016, amid concerns over the territory’s fiscal and economic situation, MLAs voted for an amendment to the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act that would freeze their salaries in 2016 and 2017.

Now that the amendment has expired, MLAs’ compensation is once again rising in concert with the consumer price index.

Darrin Ouellette, director of Corporate Services at the legislative assembly, said there was no decision per se, by MLAs to unfreeze their wages this year.

“It’s just that they had agreed two years ago that they were going to freeze their salaries for two years because of the fiscal environment of the government,” he said.

Elected officials’ raises come into effect as the union representing GNWT workers contemplate walking off the job over employment security and wages that haven’t budged since 2015.

Nearly 70 per cent of members who cast ballots at strike votes in February and March were in favour of a strike should the government of Northwest Territories not make a new wage offer.

Right now the GNWT is proposing a four-year collective agreement, retroactive to April 1, 2016, with no wage increases for the first two years, followed by a one per cent hike in the third year, and a 1.1 per cent raise in the fourth year.

The union is asking for a three-year deal with a three per cent wage increase each year.

UNW president Todd Parsons was not available for an interview before Wednesday’s press deadline, but at a demonstration outside the territorial legislature on March 9, he said the union doesn’t want be “at war” with the MLAs. Rather, members want a wage offer that at least keeps pace with inflation.

“Our MLAs have the ability to have cost of living increases and we think that they should have it, but why shouldn’t we?” he told demonstrators over the lunch-hour rally.

MLAs’ salaries, allowances and benefits are determined by an independent commission that is appointed by the speaker during the term of each legislative assembly.

The commission holds public consultations and makes recommendations to the speaker for changes to MLAs’ pay.

During the last session of the legislative assembly, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said any discussion by politicians of their own compensation is a “no-win” situation, adding that he supports the 2018 salary hike.

“For me, the issue is not one of self-interest, but a continued freeze would be an endorsement of Cabinet’s fiscal strategy of cutting programs and services to fund infrastructure,” O’Reilly said on March 9.

“If there had been a serious effort to consider the revenue side of the fiscal equation, I might feel differently.”

O’Reilly also said he did not agree with the government’s wage proposal to the union.

“Any offer that is significantly less than the consumer price index increases is unfair and unlikely to get us any closer to an agreement,” he said.

The Bank of Canada describes the consumer price index as reflecting the retail price of a “representative shopping basket” of goods and services purchased by an average Canadian household. The basket carries prices for food, clothing, transportation, housing, furniture and recreation and paints in broad strokes a picture of the cost of living in Canada.

The consumer price index is often used as an indicator of inflation.

MLAs not available

O’Reilly did not respond to requests for an interview before Wednesday’s press deadline.

Yellowknifer also reached out to MLAs Kieron Testart and Julie Green, neither of which were available for an interview before press deadline as they are traveling the territory with a committee holding public consultations on the upcoming cannabis bill.

Andrew Livingstone, a cabinet spokesperson, declined requests for interviews with minister of Finance Robert C. McLeod and minister of Education, Culture and Employment Caroline Cochrane.

According to data complied by the legislative assembly of Alberta in 2015, Northwest Territories MLAs had the third-highest basic salary in Canada after their counterparts in Alberta ($127,269) and Ontario ($116,500).

MLAs with extra responsibilities, such as the premier, the speaker, ministers and chairs of standing committees, get additional compensation. These amounts also rose by 1.6 per cent on April 1.

For example, prior to April 1, Premier Bob McLeod received $78,986 on top of his MLA salary for being government leader.

Now McLeod is making $80,250 for his role as premier, bringing his total salary before allowances and other benefits up to $185,763.

MLAs are also entitled to an allowance for “constituency business,” to cover work-related expenses such as the cost of travel to communities within their constituencies.

These allowances vary depending on the constituency, but will rise on average by $1,400, said Ouellette.

Mager said the total cost of adjustments to MLA pay and allowances in 2018 is $71,000.

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