Relief, reflection and calls for change as strike avoided

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After the long looming threat of a strike was avoided over the weekend, a relieved Union of Northern Workers member is pushing for leadership change at the territory’s largest union, calling internal confusion, a lack of communication and the top brass’ inability to fairly represent its members “appalling.”

“Todd Parsons is not representing me or my coworkers,” Megan Holsapple, a Local 9 union member, told Yellowknifer in an interview Sunday evening. Yellowknifer has agreed not to identify her job position.

“He needs to hear clearly, we have no confidence in him. We want to him to step down,” she said.

Union members gather at Mildred Hall School on Saturday for a strike preparation meeting with the Union of Northern Workers. Some UNW members are questioning the union’s preparedness now that the strike has been narrowly averted.

Early Sunday morning, after two days of mediation talks, the territorial government and UNW announced while bargaining teams couldn’t agree to a tentative new deal, both parties agreed to accept “binding recommendations” from mediator Vince Ready.  Government employees under the UNW have been without a collective agreement since 2016.

In doing so, the UNW agreed to call off its strike action planned for Monday, which would have affected around 4,000 employees across the territory and its communities.

In the weeks and days leading up to the strike’s aversion, Holsapple says she and other UNW members were often left in the dark, given conflicting, even confusing, information from the union’s Executive.

 

‘No clarity this whole time’

“Changing stories just in the last week: we’re not sure if the strike is on, we’re not sure if we’re supposed to work; we’re checking constituency maps to find out if we’re striking. We’re being told we’re being paid $117 a day, then it’s 60 per cent (of our gross salary) There’s been no clarity this whole time,” said Holsapple.

“What concerns me the most is that we’re getting to see the inner-workings of a completely incompetent union,” she added.

She said her loss of confidence in leadership is shared by the majority of members – something she says the UNW is aware of.

“They would have never suggested paying us 60 per cent of our salaries if they felt that we had confidence in what they were doing.”

Last March, Holsapple voted no to striking. That vote, the UNW stated last week, saw 70 per cent of 50 to 55 per cent of the GNWT’s rank and file vote yes to strike action.

“After our ballots were cast, we lost all control of how this has played out. We asked for the offers to come back to members, we were told ‘no.’ We asked for another vote, we were told ‘no,’” said Holsapple.

She says Parsons told members before the vote, “the only way to avoid a strike is to vote to strike,” a comment she found “ridiculous.”

In an email to Yellowknifer late Tuesday afternoon, Parsons stated, “Ms. Holsapple and Mr. Enge do not represent the interests of the Union. The UNW must focus its energy on advancing workers’ issues based on real input from our members.”

Last week, NNSL Media published an article in which Brad Enge, a former UNW Local 1 president, criticized the Union.

 

‘We were engaging them:’ UNW

Sean Dalton, the UNW’s regional vice president for the North Great Slave Region and a member of the Union’s Executive, rejected reports that leadership showed a lack of transparency, and said communication between the union and its members is a two-way street.

“I feel we were communicating very effectively with membership. We were engaging them. We had people in every community in the territory sign up to help distribute information and help get strike captains in every community,” said Dalton.

“We had meeting upon meeting, we were phoning people, emailing people. I’m not sure how much the union can possibly do?” he asked. “It’s up to the member to show up to the meetings, to sign up for the emails, to engage. The union is driven by the membership, and if they don’t engage it’s hard for us to communicate that way,” added Dalton.

Stephanie Yuill, a Local 1 member of 11 years, agrees it’s “really vital” for membership to get “more involved with our union,” but she still sees “massive holes in the current situation.”

For Yuill, Sunday’s strike aversion brought “relief.” Then “reflection.”

After many sleepless nights, Yuill, too, says she’s lost confidence in the UNW leadership, but stopped short at calling for Parsons to step down.

“There needs to some pretty significant changes, not necessary of union (leadership), but of how they deal with and communicate to the members. It’s a big concern for me.”

Yuill was one of dozens of frustrated Local 1 members turned away at a UNW meeting Saturday after more than one hundred members – many anxiously awaiting answers from their union ahead of the strike deadline – flocked to the UNW building, forcing organizers to hold a second meeting at Mildred Hall School two hours later.

Frustrations reportedly boiled over there, too, with some members blasting leadership’s lack of communication, a source inside the closed-to-media meeting said.

 

‘Sending us to war with toothpicks’

Yuill, who also attended the meeting, said there was “definitely a lot of confusion.”
“The biggest thing I hope the union learns from this is improving their communication. When there’s no clear communication, there’s risks of rumors. Then it becomes even more scary when you’re not sure who to listen to,” she said.

Other disgruntled Local 1 members leaving Saturday’s second UNW meeting lamented the lack of preparedness on the leadership’s end.

“They’re sending us to war with toothpicks,” said one member who asked not to be named.

While confusion and uncertainty put “undue stresses” on employees already gripped by the threat of a far-reaching strike, Yuill said she “still believes in unions and the Union.”

“I’m not anti-union whatsoever, but I see some massive, massive holes in the current situation,” she said.

Yuill said she found there was a disconnect between the workplace issues that matter to her, and the issues the Union planned to strike for.

To “better serve the different demands of such a diverse membership,” Yuill suggested separating the Union.

That would ensure the needs of all members, including shift workers and relief workers, are met, said Yuill, adding a similar move from the UNW could restore her confidence.

For Megan Holsapple, funds should be going to the meet the “profound” needs that exist in the territory.

‘If there’s money, I want it to go to towards helping people’

“The government doesn’t have a lot of money, it just doesn’t. I want more investment in our public services – making them bigger, better and easier to access.” she said.

“If there’s more money I want it to go toward helping people. You want to know who needs more funding? It’s people in communities. It’s really clear where the investments are and it’s not my pocket,” said Holsapple.

Moving forward, she said it’s up to Parsons to answer to the loss of confidence.
“The number of people who support him is so small. He needs to defend himself.”

After weeks of stress and living in constant uncertainty, Stephanie Yuill says she’s now looking forward to getting some sleep.

“It’s exhausting. I think so many people right now, on both sides, are exhausted. It’s just been so difficult on everyone.”

Recommendations from mediator Vince Ready could take up to 30 days before being finalized. There is a media blackout until the binding recommendations are released, meaning the GNWT won’t comment until then. 

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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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