‘Sending us to war with toothpicks,’ Frustration, confusion from Local 1 members as strike talks continue

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Frustration, anxiety and uncertainty.

Emotions spilled out of a packed UNW building in Yellowknife Saturday afternoon – the venue for a Local 1 union meeting – after dozens of the hundreds of members who showed up were turned away after capacity was reached.

“It doesn’t seem like they want to hear from us at all,” said one disgruntled member who asked not to be named.

Dozens of attendees crowded into the lobby of the building, forming a bottle-necked line leading to a lone elevator. Members were told the stairs weren’t accessible.

Dozens of Local 1 Union members were turned away from a meeting Saturday after organizers say capacity inside the UNW building was reached, frustrating many members. Brendan Burke/NNSL photo

“This is the biggest local in the government and they couldn’t get a place to put people in? Come on, it’s crazy,” the man told Yellowknifer.

Another member called the overflow “another stunt.”

A UNW representative told Yellowknifer they were forced to turn members away in accordance with NWT Fire Marshal regulations. When asked if organizers expected such a big turnout, the rep said it’s always hard to say how many members will show up.

Union representatives, who marshaled streams of union members onto the building’s fourth floor, have scheduled a second meeting to take place at 3 p.m. at the Mildred Hall School gymnasium for those who couldn’t make it inside.

Some frustrated members said they doubted they’d return.

The meeting comes as mediation talks between the UNW and the GNWT continue over the weekend. Both sides have been deadlocked over the establishment of a new collective bargaining agreement. UNW members with the territorial government have been without a contract since 2016.

The union is seeking increased wages and other labour demands. If a deal isn’t reached by Sunday at midnight, thousands of government employees could walk off the job.

Frustrations about Saturday’s meeting boiled over online, too.

“I cannot believe there is not enough room at the meeting,” one member wrote on a private UNW Facebook page, adding “it’s clear you don’t care about Local 1 at all.”

“You turn away people and then seriously expect them to go back again? Not happening. Wasted enough of my time …,” wrote another member.

“Epic fail,” stated another.

For many of the hundred of members who showed up Saturday afternoon, they hoped the meeting would offer them an update on the ongoing talks.

“Just to hear anything new,” one member said as he entered the building.

Another member named Allen said he was hopeful that a deal would be reached before midnight tomorrow.

“But I’m not holding my breath,” he said.

Union members line up for a second scheduled Union of Northern Workers’ Local 1 meeting at Mildred Hall School, on Saturday afternoon. About 150 members, according to one estimate, packed the gymnasium to get updates and briefings about how a territorial wide strike will work when it starts this Monday. Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

One union member, named Scott, took a different view of the over-capacity meeting.

“The room is full, you’ve got to be flexible,” he said.

Scott told Yellowknifer the biggest stress of the looming strike is “the unknown.”

“Is it going to happen? When is it going to happen? And what is the process? That’s why I think a lot of people are here, to find out information.

‘Very emotional time’

Stephanie Yuill, a member of local 1 said she sensed there was a mixture of emotions on Saturday. She was one of the members unable to get into the 1 p.m. meeting and had planned to make the rescheduled 3 p.m. meeting.

“There are a lot of angry people out there, but I would say it is a mixture of people who are scared, disappointed, angry, mad, terrified, embarrassed,” she said. “It is a very emotional time and I think there is a lot of emotions, not just anger.”

Yuill said she is disappointed about how the focus of the UNW-GNWT tensions seem to be about wage increases, when people want to retain their livelihoods because they love their jobs. As a result, she and some of her co-workers feel “caught” in the middle between the two.

“It is not about the money — it is so much more than that,” she said. “The fact that it has been driven down to be about the money is really frustrating for me.

“I don’t support the government, but I definitely don’t support the union right now. The government is not doing right by us, but the union is embarrassingly not doing right by us.”

Second meeting

Tempers continued to flare at the second Local 1 Union meeting at Mildred Hall School, a source inside the media-barred talk told Yellowknifer.

Gayla Thuntrom, UNW 1st vice president, told members at the meeting, “if you cross the picket line, they can do anything they want with you,” according to the source, who took “they” to mean the union.

Emotions came to a head with some union members screaming during the meeting, the source says.

One union member reportedly blasted union representatives over their lack of communication.

UNW president Todd Parsons is not in attendance, according to the sources, who says Thuntrom and Frank Walsh, Local 1 president, are the only top brass there.

At one point, according the source, UNW representatives were asked where striking members could use the washroom while on the picket line.

According to the source, they didn’t know.

Strike pay

In response to a waiver sent out to at least some GNWT employees who wish to cross the picket line and continue to work earlier this week, the UNW upped its $117 a day to 60 per cent of their gross income.

“For any union members who are part of strategic strike activities, instead of receiving the previously announced strike pay of $117 a day, they will receive 60% of their gross salary, replacing any lost income,” stated a news release.

The previously announced $117 dollars a day was coming from the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) strike fund, said Kim Bailey, UNW director of finance and administration in an email earlier this week.

When asked how long those funds were expected to last, Bailey stated “specifics on how long it will last should be directed to PSAC Ottawa.”

According to the source inside Saturday’s second Local 1 Union meeting, there will be a caveat on the 60 per cent of gross salary increase. Members will receive that increased strike pay only during rolling strikes, otherwise it’s just $117, according to the source.

The source says the meeting has devolved into “mass confusion, conflicting answers and poor information.”

‘Sending us to war with toothpicks’

Following the meeting, a Local 1 member, who asked not to be named, reiterated the lack of communication on the UNW’s end.

He said members sometimes didn’t receive email updates, and were left in the dark, often learning of strike developments through media reports.

The member also spoke of the union’s lack of preparedness for the looming strike.

“They’re sending us to war with toothpicks,” he said.

On the other hand, another Local 1 member exiting Mildred Hall School Saturday evening told Yellowknifer the meeting helped to clarify a lot of confusion.

“There were so many rumors and misconceptions – it was good to clear things up,” the man, who asked remain anonymous, said.

He said he thinks the UNW did a good job explaining the unknowns surrounding the potentially strike, but added it could benefit from a more “streamlined” method of communication to its members.

As for the 60 per cent pay caveat, the member says it makes sense.

“In the rolling strikes, if one department is on strike and all the other departments are at work, the people who are in the rolling strike would get the 60 per cent. Because it’s not fair for them if everyone else is working and getting a full day’s pay,” he said.

The man wouldn’t say he’s optimistic about both sides reaching deal before midnight Sunday, but said he’s a “hopeful” an agreement can be struck.

“To me, it’s a good sign they’re still talking.”

-with files from Simon Whitehouse and Meaghan Richens

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As the Yellowknifer’s crime reporter, it’s my job to keep readers up to speed on all-things “cops and courts” related. From house fires and homicides to courtroom clashes, it’s my responsibility to be there - day or night, rain or shine. When I’m not at court gathering stories, I’m in the office, making calls to lawyers, emailing RCMP and tracking down sources. After hours, I rely on the public to let me know what’s happening and where. Entering my second winter in Yellowknife since leaving my hometown of Peterborough, Ont., in October 2017, everyday on this beat continues to be challenging, rewarding and fulfilling. Got a story? Call me at (867) 766-8288 or shoot me an email at editorial@nnsl.com.

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