The territorial government is taking steps to prepare for possible strike action by the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) as mediation between the two parties begins.

Vince Ready will act as an independent mediator as the two sides try to agree a new collective bargaining agreement following almost three years of failed negotiations.

While the union has satisfied almost all legal requirements for the calling of a strike, its leadership insists it will do everything possible to avoid walking out.

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Three days of mediation begin on Thursday. The union told Cabin Radio further mediation sessions could be scheduled, as long as its bargaining team feels progress is being made.

However, strike action as early as November cannot be entirely ruled out.

Asked by Cabin Radio how much planning for a strike had already taken place, territorial government spokesperson Todd Sasaki said by email: “The Government of the Northwest Territories is entering the mediation scheduled for October 25-27, 2018 fully committed to achieving a fair and fiscally responsible collective agreement.

“The GNWT also recognizes its responsibilities to the residents of the NWT and all departments continue to actively prepare for the possibility that the UNW may choose to exercise its right to strike should no agreement be reached.”

Emergency agreement

Negotiations since January 2016 have stalled repeatedly over the union’s demand for three percent year-on-year pay increases, a figure the territorial government says it just cannot afford.

The two sides disagree on their interpretations of the government’s finances, with the territory even sending senior financial specialists to explain its position in detail – to no avail.

The union argues the territorial government could trim back its infrastructure spending and give more money to the 4,000 or so workers represented by the UNW. The territory says that infrastructure spending is vital both for the NWT’s present wellbeing and economic future, and often contributes toward decreasing the cost of living.

“We’re going to remain optimistic and stay focused on trying to get a fair deal for our members,” union leader Todd Parsons told Cabin Radio on Tuesday.

Parsons said the union had been preparing for possible strike action for several months, but would exhaust all alternatives first.

Presently, the union is still not in a legal position to actually call a strike, although that is expected to change imminently.

An Essential and Emergency Services Agreement must exist between the GNWT and the union before a strike can be called, to ensure vital services are able to continue in at least some form. That agreement went to arbitration, and the arbitrated agreement is due to be released some time on Tuesday or Wednesday.

With that agreement in place, all that remains to initiate strike action is for the union to provide written notice of such a move to the territorial government.

Parsons said the union had no plans regarding when, or if, it would serve that formal notice.

“We’re very responsible and we’re aware that our members are looking very closely to their leadership and the bargaining team to ensure we do everything we can to avoid a labour dispute,” he said.

“The last thing we want is a labour dispute. The financial impact that it has on our members is a part of it, but also the emotional toll it has. We’re going to do whatever we can to be fair with this employer, and we would hope the employer is going to do the same.”

Businesses ‘rely on members’

Demands to significantly increase government workers’ pay come at a time when the territory is widely perceived to be facing a range of current and looming economic challenges.

According to its latest public service report, the Government of the Northwest Territories pays its staff $488 million in annual salaries. Though a slightly simplistic calculation, dividing that salary figure by the total number of staff gives an average annual salary of roughly $94,300.

“I understand that perspective,” said Parsons, when asked how he squares the union’s demands with the existence of salaries already significantly higher than those received by many in the private sector.

“Much of the territory’s business relies on our members and the wages they receive from the government to support their communities,” he added.

“We strive to improve wages for all of our bargaining units, and we are readily supportive of all workers receiving fair economic increases in the neighbourhood of the cost of living, which is the consumer price index in Canada.”

At the conclusion of the initial three-day mediation period, on Saturday, the union expects to immediately issue an update to its members.

“There’s no rule that says the parties have reach an agreement or not reach an agreement in the three days,” said Parsons.

“There is the possibility, if the parties feel that there is still movement, that we could return to mediation at a later date. We still don’t know.

“As long as we’re making some type of improvement on behalf of our members, we’ll stay in the mediated process.”