North

Union says City of Yellowknife acting 'in bad faith' after city manager's email to unionized city staff

After negotiations came to a standstill, Yellowknife city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett sent an email addressed to all members of PSAC Local X0345 laying out the city’s offer.

Sheila Bassi-Kellett sent an email to more than 200 employees laying out the city’s collective agreement offer

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Yellowknife city hall on Nov. 1. The city is in contract negotiations with its union, and the union is unhappy with the city manager's latest move. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

The union representing most City of Yellowknife employees says the city is "engaging in bad faith intimidation tactics" after the city manager sent an email to more than 200 staff in response to a breakdown in collective bargaining last week.

The city and the Public Service Alliance of Canada met with a conciliator last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as part of negotiations for a new collective agreement, but failed to reach a deal.

On Friday, Yellowknife city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett sent an email addressed to all members of PSAC Local X0345. CBC obtained a copy of the email. In it, she said the union is preparing for a strike vote and she laid out the city's offer in collective agreement negotiations.

While Bassi-Kellett's email includes some items the city and union have agreed on, it contains no mention of items that the union is asking for, but that the city does not want to concede. 

"The city decided to completely circumvent bargaining laws and walk all over the union process in a desperate attempt at convincing the membership that the union is to blame and that their offer is fair," Lorraine Rousseau, regional executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada North, told CBC on Monday.

Yellowknife's city manager, Sheila Bassi-Kellett, wrote an email to union employees outlining the city's latest offer. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Rousseau said the city is using email to "intimidate" workers into settling for a sub-par deal. 

CBC News requested an interview with Bassi-Kellett on Monday but did not get one. City spokesperson Richard McIntosh said the city wasn't declining an interview, but that "due to staff availability" the city did not "have the appropriate person to discuss this matter." 

On Tuesday, however, the city did decline an interview, saying "it is inappropriate to bargain in the media."

The last collective agreement between the city and the PSAC, the Union of Northern Workers' umbrella union, expired on Dec. 31, 2021. Collective bargaining began in May 2022.

In a PSAC North update earlier this month, the union said negotiations were deadlocked. 

It said the city cut short the most recent negotiation session by declaring an impasse, and that the federal labour minister appointed a conciliation officer on Nov. 18 to mediate.

'We're not asking for the world'

Rousseau wouldn't go into detail about sticking points or the wage increase the union wants, saying the union isn't going to "bargain in the media."

What she did say is that the union wants the city to consider inflation, especially given how prices shot up over the last year. 

"You want to recruit and retain workers, yet you're not willing to move in a high inflationary circumstance," said Rousseau. 

"We're not asking for the world, but we're not going to settle for nothing."

As spelled out in Bassi-Kellett's email, the city's offer includes, among other items, a two per cent increase on salary retroactive to Jan. 1, 2022, and a two per cent increase effective Jan. 1, 2023. 

Bassi-Kellett says the union rejected the offer. 

City management and excluded staff, municipal enforcement officers and firefighters are not members of PSAC Local X0345. They all received two per cent pay increases this year. 

The offer stated in the email also includes adding formal breaks for meals and rest for casual part-time employees when working a 7.5 or eight-hour shift; allowances for safety footware and other gear for casual workers after working 2,080 hours; and including the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a paid holiday.

"We continue to be open and transparent with our employees as we work through this process to understand the needs and perspectives," writes Bassi-Kellett.

"Ultimately, the city values its employees and works to treat staff fairly and respectfully through meaningful work, a positive corporate culture, competitive salary and excellent benefits."

Bassi-Kellett writes that the city's offer is "fair and reasonable," and still on the table.

On Tuesday, city spokesperson Sarah Sibley said in an emailed statement that the city "respects the process of collective bargaining and will continue to make good faith efforts to reach a collective agreement with PSAC Local X0345."

She said the city is providing employees "factual information" about the bargaining process, and that "it is completely within the city's purview to communicate with its employees about the status of collective bargaining and offers that it has made at the bargaining table."

City taking a risk with its email, says labour lawyer

Bassi-Kellett's email also gives notice about the implications of union members voting 'yes' to strike.

She writes that a "yes" vote to strike is reached by a majority of the members who cast a ballot, and not by a majority of all union members.

"That means if 10 people show up to vote and six vote yes, there is approval to strike," she writes. 

Her email goes on to say that "sometimes union members may believe that a 'yes' vote is simply a way to put more pressure on the employer and it doesn't mean the union will actually call a strike."

"To be clear, a 'yes' vote gives the union the mandate to call a strike without further input from the members. So if the Union decides they will call a strike, if there is a valid 'yes' vote, the only option for the members will be to strike."

Austin Marshall, a labour and employment lawyer in Yellowknife who read Bassi-Kellett's email, said the city is "on thin ice" speaking in this way about a potential strike vote. 

"There's a warning in this, and if the employer puts itself in the position of any kind of coercion or intimidation or what might be seen as a threat, then that is what's known as an unfair labour practice, so they're taking that risk" he said. 

"Now, there may be more to the story, but certainly, as I read the letter, I see them taking that risk."

In Marshall's view, the email suggests that the city wants employees to know it's doing everything it can to get a fair agreement with the union, but the email also "smacks of trying to persuade the employees not to be going on strike."

In a labour relations context, said Marshall, the employer can say things that are "fair and honest expressions of fact," but they don't have the right to speak in a way that carries "an underlying pressure on employees to do a certain thing that the employer wants." 

Marshall wouldn't go so far as to say Bassi-Kellett's email is out of bounds, but he did say it causes him some concern.

Rousseau said the union's lawyer is investigating whether the email violated the Canada Labour Code.

She said, the union will now survey members about how they want to proceed. 

There could be a strike vote in January, she said, and if members vote to strike, they would walk out in February. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sidney Cohen

Journalist

Sidney Cohen is a reporter and editor with CBC North in Yellowknife. You can reach her at sidney.cohen@cbc.ca

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