Municipal workers on a picket line in Yellowknife on February 8. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The City of Yellowknife and unions each told the other side to take the first step in resuming negotiations as industrial action by municipal staff began.
City workers began picketing city facilities on Wednesday in what union representatives said was both a lockout and a general strike. The city said it had locked workers out after a strike began at midnight.
City facilities like the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool, fieldhouse and arenas did not open on Wednesday.
Unionized municipal staff are seeking annual wage increases above two percent up to a ceiling of seven percent. The city has offered two percent a year and says no further increase is available. Talks broke down on Tuesday morning, with the unions saying the city did not arrive with a realistic offer and the city saying the unions walked away too soon.
Outside City Hall, the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Lorraine Rousseau said: “The victory that we’re going to have here for fair wages isn’t just for these workers. This victory will be for all workers, whether in the public sector or in the private.
“The employer will have to advise us that they are prepared to talk about a fair wage.”
Daryl Snow, who maintains facilities like the city’s multiplex and arena, was a strike captain on a union picket line on Wednesday morning.
“We’re all here in it together. We’re looking for a fair wage and I just stepped up to help out, to do whatever we can to get back to work,” Snow told Cabin Radio.
“Morale is good. We’re freezing for a reason.
“We want a fair increase in wages. We want to reflect the cost of living here in Yellowknife. The cost of living is high and we want to be treated fairly by our employer.”
Rachel McVety, a city sustainability projects coordinator, held a sign imploring: “Let’s get a deal.” She said that meant “something that’s fair and respectful to workers.”
The City of Yellowknife, in a lunchtime statement, said it was “available for the entirety of this week to bargain.”
“The city was – and still is – prepared to continue negotiations towards a collective agreement. The city remains prepared to offer a total package that will put more money in the pockets of employees,” that statement read.
“Unfortunately, the union’s bargaining team left the table just before 11am on Tuesday before the city had the opportunity to table the offer. The city’s bargaining team remained in the bargaining location until after 6pm on Tuesday after reiterating that the city was willing to resume negotiations at any time.”
‘Not useful’ for council to talk
Mediation between the unions and city broke up early on Tuesday. The city’s manager has said the municipality is “at the max” in terms of its ability to offer higher pay increases for workers, requested by the unions given the current rate of inflation. The unions rejected the city’s argument.
Cat McGurk, a newly elected city councillor, told Mornings at the Cabin council did not want to “damage the relationship” between the unions and city by discussing the work stoppage in detail.
“It’s not useful for me to speculate,” McGurk said. “It’s not useful for me to talk about it.”
McGurk told residents: “You’re welcome to come to me and provide your perspective to me, and I can use that to inform any decisions that I have to make – but my opinion? That doesn’t really matter.”
McGurk acknowledged that with most councillors mere months into their first terms in office, many were still learning about labour relations.
“We’re just coming together and learning as a group,” McGurk said. “It’s not like we’re facing this with a whole four-year plan ahead that we’ve developed together.”
Significant, localized strike action has been vanishingly rare in Yellowknife since some of the city’s darkest days in the early 1990s, when industrial action at Giant Mine lasted for more than a year. Though GNWT workers came within touching distance of a strike in 2019, 11th-hour mediation resulted in an agreement.
Asked on Monday whether the City of Yellowknife was prepared for an extended work stoppage, city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said: “That’s a really tough one. We don’t want to see a strike, period. We will deal with this as it comes. We will manage to the best of our capacity.”
Many of those changes affect recreational programming and facilities. Water and sewer, emergency services, transit and garbage removal will all be maintained in some form or in full, the city has said. Snow removal, however, will be significantly scaled back – a reduction residents may soon notice during an unusually snowy winter.
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.
Correction: February 8, 2023 – 13:21 MT. A previous version of this article stated that city negotiators had told the union there was no further cash available for salary increases. While the city’s manager has stated the city is “at the max” regarding the salary increases it can offer, the city says negotiators made no such statement on Tuesday.