Dozens of union members wearing orange held a “practice picket” outside the NWT Power Corporation’s Yellowknife power plant on Friday lunchtime.
While the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) termed the gathering a training exercise, union leader Todd Parsons made plain that he hoped the sight would “send a message” to NWT Power Corporation bosses.
Parsons told Cabin Radio industrial action by its members at the power corporation was now “the most likely outcome,” marking a significant escalation in terminology the union has used.
The collective bargaining impasse between the UNW and the power corporation is similar to that between the union and the territorial government.
In both cases, the union warns strike action will take place if the UNW is ‘provoked’. While each dispute centres on the large gap between the union and employer over salary increases, other issues such as job security are factors.
“The union feels we are in a legal strike position now. We are out here to show this employer that we have a strong resolve,” said Parsons.
“We are testing our fortitude and our cold weather out here to show we are still prepared to carry out formal pickets.
“We are absolutely sending a message to the employer. It’s ‘practice training’ – that’s just a phrase we like to use because we haven’t served formal strike notice, so you can only assume that we’re practising.”
‘We are about fed up’
“I’ve been with the power corporation for 32 years and this is the longest time it has ever taken to get a contract together,” said Bob Norton, one of those taking part in the “practice picket.” More than 90 percent of power corporation employees who took part in a strike vote supported strike activity, according to Parsons.
Norton said power corporation staff had not received wage increases to meet the rising cost of living, “like they get in the legislature, and we are about fed up.”
“They are crying poverty,” he said, referring to the territorial government, “but then again, if you’re reading the right page at the legislature, it sounds like we’re doing pretty good.”
Norton’s comments were echoed by several others on Friday’s would-be picket, suggesting the territorial government’s insistence it is in no financial position to grant the union’s demands is not being heard or accepted.
“People that are on a tight budget? We’re going to get squeezed out of here at some point,” said Norton.
“I hope today lets everybody know that we are getting in a desperate situation here. If they want us to continue to provide a safe, reliable service, we expect at least a cost-of-living adjustment.”
Not all practice picketers were power corporation employees. Marie Buchanan, a nurse practitioner who has lived in Yellowknife for three decades, came out in an orange vest in support.
“When one is harmed, all are harmed,” said Buchanan, who is also a member of the bargaining team in negotiations with the territorial government. A union staff member accompanied Cabin Radio throughout all interviews – the union has, in private meetings with members, complained of what it perceives to be unfair media coverage.
Asked how she would feel if strike action became a reality, Buchanan said: “It is what it is. If that’s the way we have to go, that’s the way we have to go.
“There are issues about mental health, domestic violence, maternity and paternity leave. It’s not all about money.
“This is all about securing our future and our children. I’m 61, I’m close to retirement, but my kids are young. I want them to have the life I’ve enjoyed in Yellowknife as a full-time worker.”
Though Parsons portrayed much of Friday’s exercise as a message to the employer, he acknowledged there may be many union members who genuinely do need guidance when it comes to picketing, as few have significant experience of strike action.
While town employees in Hay River went on strike for six months in 2015, Parsons could not recall the last union-led strike in the North Slave. Most memories of strike action in Yellowknife relate to the deadly and divisive Giant Mine strike of the 1990s.