North

'We are not bluffing': N.W.T. gov't workers could be on picket lines next week

Thousands of employees at the N.W.T. government could be on the picket lines on Monday morning, as the Union of Northern Workers served strike notice Tuesday afternoon.

Gov't and its 4,000 workers have been without a collective agreement since 2016

Union of Northern Workers president Todd Parsons addresses the media at a press conference Tuesday in Yellowknife. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Thousands of employees at the N.W.T. government could be on the picket lines on Monday morning, as the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) served strike notice Tuesday afternoon.

Union of Northern Workers president Todd Parsons delivered the hard deadline Tuesday at a press conference at the union's headquarters in Yellowknife.

"We will act and we mean business," Parsons said.

"At midnight on Monday February 11 we will commence strike action in a full and general strike in all of our communities if we are not successful in our efforts to reach a tentative agreement.

UNW employees take part in a 'practice picket' in Yellowknife earlier this year. The union held several such events over the winter months in preparation for a strike. (Mario de Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

"We remain very committed to reaching a tentative agreement with this employer, but time is running out. We need the government to understand that we are not bluffing."

The notice says the union is preparing a "new comprehensive offer" and will make a "last-ditch effort" to come to a new agreement.

We feel that we've been very fair in our discussions with UNW. - Minister Robert C. McLeod

The territorial government and the UNW, which represents about 4,000 government employees, have been at a standstill in negotiations of a new collective agreement. The union has been without an agreement since 2016.

The issues include wage increases and the government's use of relief workers. 

The union is asking for three-per-cent wage increases every year for a period of three years. The government's latest offer includes no salary increases for the first two years of a new five-year collective agreement (retroactive to 2016, the expiry of the first agreement), then salary increases of 1.4 per cent over the next two years and a 1.7 per cent increase in 2020.

Picket line

Parsons said striking workers would be expected to spend four hours a day on the picket line or in some other strike support-related activity. Parsons said strike pay is approximately $117 per day.

Government workers designated as essential workers would be exempt from the strike. Parsons said he didn't know off hand how many workers would meet that criteria, but the majority would not.

We will act and we mean business.- Todd Parsons, UNW president

The strike notice was briefly discussed in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly Tuesday afternoon.

"A strike is not something that anybody wants, it's not something that people in the Northwest Territories want, especially the employees," said Robert C. McLeod, the territory's minister of finance.

"We feel that we've been very fair in our discussions with UNW. Again, that remains to be seen. So we'll have a better idea after the mediation this weekend to see what type of position we're in."

The territorial government and the union bargaining team will meet with mediator Vince Ready, on Feb. 8 and 9, in an attempt to come to a new agreement.

But the government is preparing for the worst.

In a memo to government workers late Tuesday afternoon, the deputy minister of finance, David Stewart, outlined some of the territory's strike plans.

In the absence of an agreement between the union and the government, nonessential employees are to prepare for Monday's deadline by leaving all government issued laptops, cell phones, credit cards, keys and fobs at their desks by the end of their last shifts before the deadline.

"All unionized employees who did not recieve an Essential or Emergency Services letter, will be placed on strike leave effective February 11, 2019," the memo states.

The memo also states more information will be released later in the week.

Todd Parsons, in blue in the first row, stands with several representatives of the Union of Northern Workers at the Legislative Assembly Tuesday. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

The two sides met with Ready in October, with talks breaking down a day earlier than scheduled.

In the spring of 2018, the union held a strike vote, which resulted in 70 per cent of respondents voting in favour.

That figure was characterized as low by labour expert Kenneth Thornicroft last month, saying he believed repeated strike threats from the union could have been an attempt at a bluff.

The UNW is representing several groups of public sector employees currently negotiating with the N.W.T. government, including employees of the N.W.T. Power Corporation and the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority.

The N.W.T. Power Corporation is currently in a strike position, while the Hay River authority held a strike vote last week, and is expected to announce the results Wednesday.

Notice comes as legislature sits

Both the government and union have blamed each other for the standstill, with both sides releasing statements claiming the other is offering misleading facts when it comes to pay, employee status, and the government's current fiscal position.

The union's latest move comes as the territory's MLAs return to the legislature to begin their spring sitting. The state of negotiations is expected to be a major point of discussion, and Minister McLeod is expected to present the territory's budget Wednesday.

On Tuesday morning, Parsons and several union representatives sat in the Legislative Assembly's gallery watching the proceedings.

With files from Walter Strong

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