The territorial government expressed surprise and disappointment as the Union of Northern Workers deemed last week’s bargaining talks a failure.
On Saturday, the union told members talks with a mediator had ‘failed’ and strike training had begun, though it stopped short of declaring a strike inevitable.
In a response published on Monday, the territorial government said its negotiators “believed progress was made during mediation and believed both sides were committed to offering solutions to try to complete a collective agreement.”
Union leader Todd Parsons, calling the territory’s position “outrageous and insulting” in Saturday’s memo to members, wrote: “The government still thinks employees should subsidize its overly ambitious infrastructure plans.”
The territory said it was ‘disappointed’ by the tone of that memo, adding the union “misrepresented the GNWT financial situation, suggested that the government does not provide a living wage to its employees, and suggests that employees are being asked to subsidize infrastructure investments.”
In effect, and through carefully chosen terms, Monday’s territorial government response accused the union of being unreasonable and irresponsible in its approach after almost three years of collective bargaining.
Territorial government workers who are union members earn more than $96,000 each year on average, including northern allowance, the GNWT said, and are entitled to 41 days of paid leave per year.
“We are proud of the agreements we have reached with the UNW in the past that have led, in part, to the compensation, benefits and supports provided to our employees,” the territory said, as it defended the way in which it allocates financial resources.
“The government recognizes that there needs to be a balance in the approach to investment given our fiscal environment,” Monday’s statement continued.
“The GNWT also recognizes the importance of investments in programs, including infrastructure to support program delivery and to provide strategic infrastructure that helps support economic growth.
“The current capital estimates includes road investments (with significant federal support) and investments in schools, long‐term care facilities, health centres, and a range of energy initiatives. These investments … create important economic activity and jobs in communities throughout the NWT.”
On Saturday, the union told members: “The UNW made significant movement on our proposals. And while the employer showed some willingness to move on some non-monetary issues, it was not enough to meet our mandate to protect union member job security. The employer also showed no willingness to provide wage increases that would address the cost of living in the North.”
The territory disputed that characterization on Monday, saying it had hoped to reach a five-year collective agreement with “no salary change in the first two years of the agreement followed by substantial salary increases for the next three years.”
At this point, given negotiations have taken years, “the first two years” of any eventual agreement would in actuality mean 2016-17 and 2017-18.
In other words, under the union’s proposal, staff would receive backdated sums for each of those two financial years plus extra cash going forward. The territory is offering no extra pay for those previous years, but salary increases for 2018-19 onward.
The territorial government said the terms of mediation meant it could not go into detail regarding the size of those salary bumps, but it claimed the increases “would provide UNW employees approximately $36 million in additional compensation and benefits” – alongside a $4 million overall increase in northern allowance-related benefits over the final three years.
Territorial government proposals also addressed union concerns over relief and term employees, improved layoff provisions to allow more scope for voluntary separation and preserve pensions, and improvements regarding medical and mental health supports, Monday’s statement claimed.
“We are in challenging fiscal times with revenues declining by $84 million over the past three years (a 4.6 percent decline),” the statement continued.
“We are hopeful to see this trend change over the next few years, but there is limited evidence that there will be significant, sustained increases in revenue.
“We believe that our employees are prepared to do their part to manage our way through this difficult financial period.”
‘Prepared to meet’
The territorial government confirmed talks had ended a day early, with mediator Vince Ready calling a halt to proceedings on Friday evening, discarding Saturday’s planned continuation of negotiations.
However, the territory said it “continues to be prepared to meet with the union at any time, with or without the mediator, to reach a collective agreement.”
Strike training has begun in Hay River and is set to expand to other communities, the union said on Saturday. A strike could in theory be called some time in November.
The level of support for a strike among the union’s membership is unclear, with a number of union members privately characterizing the current disagreement as a personal battle being fought by Parsons – who is in his sixth term as the union’s boss.
The union said a strike mandate vote held earlier this year – which gauges member support for the consideration of strike action if negotiations are unsuccessful – had a positive response from almost 70 percent of those who voted.
However, the union provided no detail beyond that figure, such as how many of the 4,000 affected members voted in total. Some members also reported having to attend a presentation by union leadership, designed to encourage a vote supporting strike action, immediately before voting.