North

UNW 'trying to bluff' with strike threats and it's not working, says expert

'I really have this sense that maybe the union leadership and the membership aren't quite on the same side when it comes to how strongly they are objecting to the employer's last proposal,' said Kenneth Thornicroft.

Next round of talks with Vancouver-based mediator Vince Ready scheduled for Feb. 8

Kenneth Thornicroft is a professor of law and employment relations at the University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business. (Submitted by Kenneth Thornicroft)

A labour expert and professor at the University of Victoria believes it's possible leadership at the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) doesn't have enough support from its membership to go on strike.   

Kenneth Thornicroft is a professor of law and employment relations at the University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business. He's currently a member of B.C.'s Employment Standards Tribunal, and has served as an arbitrator and mediator in several employment disputes.

"I really have this sense that maybe the union leadership and the membership aren't quite on the same side when it comes to how strongly they are objecting to the employer's last proposal," he said.

"[In my opinion] they're really just trying to squeeze out a little bit more and they're hoping that time will help."

Last February, the UNW held a strike vote for government employees across eight different communities in the N.W.T. and Nunavut. Almost 70 per cent of eligible UNW members who voted, voted in favour of a strike. That number is quite low, according to Thornicroft.

You certainly don't want to go on strike with a 55 or 60 per cent mandate.- Kenneth Thornicroft, University of Victoria professor

"To me that's borderline," he said. "Basically one out of three employees doesn't want to go out on strike, that's a problem."

"One of the things I wonder is do they really feel that they have a strong mandate from within their membership … You certainly don't want to go out on strike with a 55 or 60 percent mandate."

Thornicroft speculated the union may be bluffing with repeated threats to strike, and that strategy may be backfiring: "you're trying to bluff and it's not working."

He said the union is undermining the strike threat every time it doesn't follow through. 

"It's surprising to me that they haven't decided to go out on strike given that it seems to be a stalemate."

Union of Northern Workers president Todd Parsons speaks to a crowd at the N.W.T. legislative assembly in March. The union which represents close to 4,000 employees has been without a collective agreement since 2016. (Randi Beers/CBC)

Union employees have been without a collective agreement since 2016. Going three years without a collective bargaining agreement is an oddity to Thornicroft, who says agreements typically last three to five years.

The time which the UNW and Department of Finance have spent negotiating amounts to what would have been a new agreement, he said.  

Both sides ramp up arguments

On Monday, the territorial government released a document on its website outlining a previously unreported, five-year offer to the UNW.

The document states that despite the union's claims, some employees would receive up to a four-per-cent increase in some years when step increases — annual raises tied to an employee's service time — are taken into account.

UNW president Todd Parsons responded to the document by saying that the government is "dishonest and misleading," and their claims amount to trying to "pull the wool over their workforce's eyes."

Parsons said that approximately half of the 4,000 territorial government employees he represents no longer qualify for step increases, and noted both sides had never discussed a five-year deal.

Spokesperson for the Department of Finance Todd Sasaki said in an email that about 48 per cent of government employees have reached their maximum salary and no longer qualify for step increases, but "the [department] has decided to provide this information so that our employees may understand the details around pay increases and the [government's] current economic offer."

Latest offer includes wage increases, but how much?

Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers, says recent claims from the territorial government about wage increases are 'dishonest' and 'misleading.'

Before Monday's release, the government's proposal to the union was a four-year agreement with retroactive zero per cent salary increases for 2016 and 2017, a one per cent increase in 2018, and a 1.1 per cent increase in 2019, not including the step increases.

The latest proposal still includes zero per cent salary increases for 2016 and 2017, 1.4 per cent increases in 2018 and 2019, and a 1.7 per cent increase in 2020.

Among negotiating social issues such as job security and mental-health initiatives, the union says getting all employees a fair living wage remains a top priority.  

In an email, Sasaki said the reality of the government's financial state should be considered in future negotiations, because government revenue declined $80 million the two years immediately following the expiration of the last collective agreement. 

"We understand that everyone would like to receive pay increases as large as possible," stated the government's Monday release. "We do not believe people want to see the government abandon other investments or undertake further reductions ... to achieve those increases."

On Tuesday evening, the UNW issued a news release of its own, saying that it offered binding arbitration as a solution to the dispute, but the territorial government and Northwest Territories Power Corporation rejected it.

The UNW and territorial government are scheduled to return to the bargaining table on Feb. 8.

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