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Union and city relations worsen following bargaining impasse


The union representing Yellowknife’s municipal workers has accused the city of “bad-faith” bargaining amid suggestions a strike vote could be called in January.

City workers are represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada and Union of Northern Workers. The last collective agreement expired at the end of 2021 and bargaining began on May 11 this year.

The two have been at impasse since November, a term meaning one side – in this case, the city – feels no further progress can be made without a third party stepping in.

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A meeting with an independent conciliator on December 12 and 13 resulted in no significant movement, the Union of Northern Workers said.

Approached for comment on Friday, union leader Gayla Thunstrom said in a statement: “The employer did not come to the meetings with a view to negotiating a fair deal for their employees. The employer is not interested in a deal that addresses our members’ core issues and, therefore, conciliation failed.”

Further, the union alleges a Friday email sent by city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett to staff – in which Bassi-Kellett set out possible consequences of a strike vote – amounts to “bad-faith intimidation tactics.”

PSAC is understood to be surveying members about a strike vote in January, two people familiar with the organization said. (The Union of Northern Workers, asked directly whether that was the case, said it would not comment. The CBC reported a separate PSAC spokesperson had confirmed as much.)

Bassi-Kellett told staff that a vote on a strike mandate requires only a majority among the unionized staff who choose to vote, not a majority of the local’s members as a whole. She gave the example that a ‘yes’ vote from as few as six people, if only 10 vote, would deliver a strike mandate that a union can then use to call a strike without further consultation.

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The Union of Northern Workers characterized Bassi-Kellett’s email as the city “advising and interfering in union business in a mass communication it sent to our members, in a desperate attempt to convince the membership that the union is to blame.”

The city is offering unionized workers a two-percent salary increase backdated to the start of 2022 and another two-percent increase in 2023. The Union of Northern Workers has not publicly stated the terms it is seeking or would accept, but said the offer on the table was too little.

“The employer denied it has the means to pay fair wages despite high recruitment and retention issues, despite continuous surpluses on the backs of our members and Yellowknifers, and without accounting for the large increases it has already budgeted for,” Thunstrom stated.

“The employer also says it doesn’t bargain inflation and refuses to acknowledge the economic hardship on Yellowknifers in 2022. Meanwhile, it has no problem using inflation as a justification for raising taxes.” (City councillors recently voted to increase property taxes by 4.5 percent in 2023. City staff had said the draft budget was a “difficult balancing act [after] the volatility and the pressures introduced by recent global events.”)

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The City of Yellowknife declined a request for an interview with Bassi-Kellett on the grounds that “it is inappropriate to bargain through the media.”

In a written statement, city spokesperson Sarah Sibley said: “The city respects the process of collective bargaining and will continue to make good faith efforts to reach a collective agreement.

“In doing so, the city is continuing to communicate with our employees about where we are in the bargaining process by providing factual information; 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.

“The city has been communicating with staff about the collective bargaining process, most recently in November. The city remains hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”