Protection against all forms of workplace harassment and abuse is "very high" on the list of priorities for workers negotiating a new collective agreement with the N.W.T. government, says the president of the Union of Northern Workers.

"We're looking at better protection for our members in the work environment," said Todd Parsons.

The UNW represents nearly 4,000 territorial government workers — almost one fifth of the people working in the N.W.T. — in negotiations with the government.

The union wants the definition of harassment to be broadened to include "bullying... verbal comments, actions and gestures which affect an employee's dignity or psychological or physical integrity."  

The union also wants to protect workers from workplace violence and what it calls "abuses of authority — intimidation, threats, blackmail and coercion."

"Abuse of authority occurs when an individual uses the power and authority inherent in his/her position to endanger an employee's job, undermines the employee's ability to do that job, [or] threatens the economic livelihood of that employee…" states the union's proposal.

A membership proposal

Parsons said the proposal comes "from our rank-and-file members" after a year of debate about what issues should take center stage at the negotiating table.

"They rank the priority of those proposals, so this was a membership proposal. It was very high."

The union is also asking for a mediator to help settle grievances about harassment or abuse of authority.

The current collective agreement does not specify the need for a mediator.

Shaleen Woodward, the lead negotiator for the N.W.T. government, said the government welcomes the discussion about harassment.

"For us it's a very helpful discussion: understanding what the issues are, where they come from and then us trying to talk about how we can resolve them together," said Woodward.

In 2014, 80 per cent of workers said they were treated respectfully at work, compared to 77.6 per cent in 2012, according to the government's latest survey on worker satisfaction. The government did not ask workers that question during previous surveys in 2010 and 2011.

Stigma around mental health issues

The union also wants a committee formed to help reduce and eliminate "the stigma in the workplace that is too frequently associated with mental health issues."

That same committee would help identify "tools...to support employees facing these challenges."

"It's at the forefront of a lot of the membership's thoughts," said Parsons.

"Union and our membership want [it] addressed so that in the event they're faced with mental health issues, they have some plans and some understanding of what they can expect from their union and their employer."

The current collective agreement does not include a section about mental health.

Contract negotiations are not expected to resume until March 29.

Woodward said each side needs time to evaluate the other side's positions.

Both Parsons and Woodward did add, however, that aligning the schedules of the 15 people around the negotiation table — 11 from union, four from the territorial government —  has proved challenging.