Union members protest outside the NWT legislature in March 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The Union of Northern Workers claimed on Tuesday the territorial government had refused to enter binding arbitration to settle two outstanding disputes over collective agreements.
The union said it had asked the territorial government to use binding arbitration to decide terms for new agreements with both government and power corporation staff, affecting more than 4,000 workers.
The territorial government, which did not immediately confirm the union’s claim, has been approached for comment.
Negotiations for both collective agreements are more than three years old, with union threats of strike action growing more intense in recent months.
Mediation dates are planned for both agreements in February.
While mediation attempts to help both parties find common ground, binding arbitration is different in that it forces the two sides to present their cases to an impartial arbitrator, who makes a ruling that is binding to all involved – meaning they must accept the arbitrator’s proposal, regardless of what it says.
“We know families are worried. For over three years, our members have been working hard, making compromises and trying to reach a fair deal,” Todd Parsons, the union leader, said in a statement issued on Tuesday.
“Unfortunately, the government said no,” Parsons continued in Tuesday’s news release.
“Let’s be clear – if the government was serious about fixing this situation and settling this dispute they could do so today, right now, and simply agree to binding arbitration.”
“The government is being dishonest and unaccountable, saying one thing in public then acting a different way behind closed doors. That just isn’t right.”
Both sides in the dispute have consistently accused the other of misleading the public, while few details have been made available in a decidedly opaque process, making it difficult for union members, members of the public, and journalists to establish facts.
Why reject arbitration?
The union did acknowledge that, under binding arbitration, “both sides face some risk” – and the territorial government would not be the first to reject such an option.
As an example, Canada’s national postal workers’ union rejected binding arbitration with the federal government in November last year, saying: “We have the right to collective bargaining and to settle this through negotiations.”
In 2014 the BC government rejected binding arbitration with the province’s teachers, in part because a policy prevented employers from giving third parties the authority to bind them to settlements that may have been outside their wage and benefit structure.
On Tuesday, the Union of Northern Workers said: “Given the length of time bargaining has dragged on, and given the stresses it has placed on our workers and communities, the UNW is willing to accept the risk.”
The union indicated accepting binding arbitration would end the threat of a strike, given both sides would be obliged to accept the outcome without recourse.
Parsons called that “a sacrifice for our members, but it’s worth it if we can end this dispute, avoid a strike, and ensure a fair deal.”
A third collective agreement currently being negotiated, for Hay River’s health authority staff, was not mentioned by the union on Tuesday even though it, too, has mediation scheduled in February.