Three members of a bargaining team in Hay River say they have been removed from their roles by the union after trying to reach an agreement with their employer.
The three women had been hoping to hold a stripped-back meeting with bosses at the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority (HRHSSA) in a bid to avert a strike, they said.
In a Facebook post, they said the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) appeared to have “a predetermined agenda to take us on strike” alongside territorial government and power corporation staff.
Meanwhile, a strike vote due to have been held in Hay River on Thursday was cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances” according to a union-issued poster.
Heather Coakwell, the president of UNW Local 21, was one of three women on the bargaining team to sign Wednesday’s letter posted to Local 21’s Facebook page.
The Union of Northern Workers declined an interview request but provided a short statement.
“The Union of Northern Workers/Public Service Alliance of Canada are in the process of investigating what happened, but all members of the bargaining team have been fully involved with making decisions within these negotiations,” the union’s statement read.
“Our priority is the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority members, that’s who we work for. The UNW/PSAC will always put representing our members and fighting for their interests first.”
None of the three women could be reached by phone on Thursday morning.
‘Shock and disappointment’
“We were fast approaching a strike vote on January 17 and the bargaining team was looking at options available that would see us go back to bargaining … with the intent of reaching a mutual agreement,” read the letter signed by Coakwell, Ann Schreuders, and Barbara Holland.
In their letter, the three said the bargaining approach to date had been ‘ineffective’ and so they sought an alternative arrangement “without outside lawyers and negotiators, to sit down and have open discussions about the current outstanding issues.”
“It would have seen only employees of the HRHSSA sitting at the table to discuss a plan [who] have invested as a group almost 100 years of service,” the letter continued.
The letter stated the employer had agreed to the proposed talks, as long as the Union of Northern Workers gave its blessing for Coakwell, as Local 21 president, to speak on the union’s behalf.
However, the letter claims the union – and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, of which the UNW is a part – not only refused to allow the meeting to go ahead, but subsequently told the trio: “I regret to also inform you that the national president intends to remove you from the bargaining team.”
The three said such a response “came as a shock and a great disappointment,” adding: “We are no longer your bargaining team and we are unsure who to defer to at this time.”
Coakwell, Schreuders, and Holland formed three-quarters of an elected bargaining team according to the UNW’s website, alongside Public Service Alliance of Canada negotiator Gail Lem.
While there has been no official union response, Josee-Anne Thibault – listed on the union’s website as its regional vice-president for Somba K’e – replied on Facebook: “I am very disappointed about how you have chosen to handle this.”
Thibault continued: “I wonder if you realize how your decisions will negatively impact not just Hay River Health members but over 4,000 other members, 4,000 families. Please consider removing this post and talking to the appropriate parties, and working together like a true unionist.”
The post remained available as of 11am on Thursday.
Collective bargaining between Hay River’s health authority and the union has been going on for 18 months, while bargaining between the union and both the territorial government and power corporation has dragged on significantly longer.
In a message to members earlier this week, the union said the health authority was offering a 3.9 percent wage increase over four years, which the union said was well below real and forecast inflation.
The same message acknowledged “some progress has been made” in areas such as harassment policy and communication, but suggested these were not significant in comparison to areas where the two sides differed.
Off the job
On Wednesday, the UNW published a short statement announcing two days of mediation with the health authority in February.
However, an earlier, January 10 message distributed to Local 21 members appeared to suggest February’s mediation attempt may be a last roll of the dice before immediate strike action.
The January 10 message said that, if members voted ‘yes’ at the planned January 17 strike vote, “there will be two days of intensive mediation between your bargaining team and the employer directly before walking off the job.”
“This could result in a tentative agreement that would halt a strike,” the message added, suggesting the union would provide the health authority with notice of intent to strike and offer one, final chance for the employer to avoid that outcome.
It is it clear what will now happen following the apparent cancellation of Thursday’s strike vote.
Nor is it clear if similar February mediation dates announced by the union, with the territorial government and power corporation, will be similarly billed by their respective bargaining teams as last-ditch talks against the background of an imminent strike.
However, in December, union boss Parsons said a strike was “the most likely outcome” in the ongoing dispute with the power corporation.