Rebecca Alty at a news conference in November 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife appears to be heading toward industrial action after unions representing municipal staff told members last-ditch mediation was “unsuccessful.”
The Public Service Alliance of Canada and Union of Northern Workers told members their bargaining team “tried our best and continued to put our best foot forward at every opportunity, but it truly feels like our employer did not come to the table to bargain with us.”
The City of Yellowknife, by contrast, said the unions had “left the table with more than 13 hours left to reach a deal” and the municipal bargaining team “remains in the bargaining location ready to share its ideas.”
Rebecca Alty, the city’s mayor, said she was “shocked and disappointed” by the unions’ announcement that mediation had failed, which she said by email was “categorically wrong” given the time remaining.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, or PSAC, told the City of Yellowknife on Saturday night that strike action would begin on Wednesday if talks on Monday and Tuesday did not result in a deal.
The city, in response, said it would commence a lockout of workers on the same day if no agreement was reached. City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said a lockout was a necessary response to avoid operational “uncertainty” a strike might bring, such as managers not knowing who may or may not turn up for work.
In an email to members on Tuesday seen by Cabin Radio, the union local representing municipal staff said “mediation has been unsuccessful.”
The PSAC and Union of Northern Workers subsequently confirmed that development in a statement to reporters that used similar language. In that statement, the unions asked residents to respect picket lines.
“The employer informed us that they weren’t able to move on wages, amongst other things,” the earlier email to members stated.
“We know it is still early in the process for today, and the city still has the option to come back to us with another pass before the end of the day but they do not have to.”
Unions ‘left the table’
In a statement to Cabin Radio, the City of Yellowknife said: “On Tuesday morning, the union’s bargaining team left the table with more than 13 hours left to reach a deal and avoid a strike. The union left the bargaining table without giving the city the opportunity to be creative and work with the union towards a solution.”
Alty, responding to a request from Cabin Radio for councillors to comment on the likely industrial action ahead, said by email: “I’m shocked and disappointed by the union’s press release on the issue, because it’s categorically wrong.
“How can they say that we weren’t willing to table a new offer when they left the table before that stage?”
As things stand, municipal facilities will close on Wednesday and services like garbage collection and snow removal will scale back.
The unions say approximately 189 workers are affected. The city puts the number at 205.
The Union of Northern Workers declined to make public its approach to strike pay for those members who appear on picket lines, stating that “if our members have any questions or concerns about strike pay, pickets, or other union activity, they can contact their bargaining team or local for details.”
However, later on Tuesday afternoon, the UNW said it would release $250,000 from its wage disruption fund to “help supplement the PSAC strike fund” that provides picket pay to bargaining unit members who appear on the picket line.
The identity of the mediator leading negotiations this week has not been made public. A PSAC representative said she did not know the mediator’s name and Bassi-Kellett said the mediator was “not comfortable having his name out there.”
‘You do not report to work’
The city has been offering employees two-percent year-on-year salary increases, a proposal the unions involved say is not enough given inflation of seven percent in the past 12 months.
Instead, the PSAC and UNW say city employees deserve salary increases of up to seven percent annually to match the rising cost of living. (The unions have not publicized their precise requests, but say the range requested is above two percent and extends up to seven percent.)
Bassi-Kellett says the city is legally obliged to produce a balanced budget and there is no more money available for salary increases.
“We can’t do deficit budgeting, like the GNWT or the federal government can. Our revenues have to equal our expenditures,” she said on Monday.
“I believe the city is a really good employer and some creative options are still available.”
Bassi-Kellett said on Monday that city negotiators were “trying to find a path that is a good, solid compromise.”
“We know that inflation is high,” she said. “We know that inflation is projected to come down … What is affordable to Yellowknifers? We take that very seriously.”
Unionized municipal staff receiving Tuesday’s email were told they “will officially be on strike/lock out as of midnight tonight.”
“That means you do not report to work tomorrow or stay past midnight if you’re scheduled to work later,” with some exceptions, the email continued.
Canadian labour law mandates that certain critical services must remain in place during a strike or lockout. The City of Yellowknife has said emergency services like fire, ambulance and municipal enforcement will remain available.