Todd Parsons, the Union of Northern Workers president, flanked by union local leaders at a news conference on February 5, 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The Union of Northern Workers says strike action will begin on Monday, February 11 if no deal is reached with the territorial government beforehand.
“We need the government to understand that we are not bluffing. We are prepared to engage in a full and general strike,” Todd Parsons, the union leader, told a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.
“[The territorial government] seems insistent on forcing our hand. We will act and we mean business.”
The union said its recent offer of binding arbitration – a process by which a third party decides on terms which must be followed – still stands. The territorial government rejected a previous offer to follow that process.
A strike will mean 4,000 territorial government workers take to the picket line in February weather, each being asked to spend a minimum of four hours per day on “union activities” (which include manning the picket among other duties) in order to receive daily strike pay of $117.
The UNW and territorial government are due to meet for a second round of talks, with mediator Vince Ready, at Yellowknife’s Quality Inn on Friday and Saturday – ahead of the union’s newly announced deadline.
Watch the Union of Northern Workers’ Tuesday, February 5 news conference in full.
The territorial government did not immediately issue a response, though MLAs were speaking in the legislature at the time of the union’s announcements.
Premier Bob McLeod did not raise the subject in his opening remarks for the legislature’s February and March sitting, delivered prior to the union revealing it had served strike notice.
Cory Vanthuyne, the MLA for Yellowknife North, urged both sides to work together to avoid a strike.
‘Not asking for the moon’
Asked why his union had not held a new strike vote, featuring the latest offer on the table, Parsons replied: “We need to send a very clear message to the employer that we are prepared to strike. We have a lot of strike support. We have been consulting with our members for more than the last two months.
“Our members’ number one question has been when to start a strike, not whether to start a strike.”
Frank Walsh, a nurse at Stanton Hospital and leader of Local 11, said his family “just faces cuts on a non-stop, continuous basis. Zeroes don’t cut it, they don’t keep up with the cost of living.
“We are not asking for the moon and the sun and mountains,” said Walsh at the news conference. “We are asking for a bit of respect. We are looking to be valued.
“The cold doesn’t deter us. We are here to get some real gains from our members,” he said, to applause from fellow local leaders.
It is not clear how far apart the two sides remain on several key issues heading into what is now make-or-break mediation.
Negotiations have been ongoing since January 2016, and have centred on the issue of year-on-year pay increases. The GNWT says it doesn’t have the money to meet the union’s demands.
The union says other issues, like use of relief workers and job security, are also critical.
Though some members have complained about a lack of information from the union, Parsons said on Tuesday he would not reveal specific details about the state of bargaining – suggesting it would “undermine the bargaining team … to get into the weeds.”
Union ‘can turn off strike’
In recent weeks, territorial government staff have made clear they are by no means unanimously in support of strike action. The union acknowledges that while almost 70 percent of members who chose to vote backed a strike mandate in April 2018, around one in three of those who voted did not.
Parsons said crossing the picket line would “extend the labour dispute … if, in fact, they are given the opportunity to go into the work site by the employer.”
The union said it would not discuss potential impacts on two other sets of collective bargaining negotiations, involving the NWT Power Corporation and Hay River Health and Social Services Authority.
Each of those bargaining units also has mediation scheduled for next week.
Parsons told reporters a strike would be avoided “if the Government of the Northwest Territories accepts either of our two offers: binding arbitration or to accept the mediator’s recommendations going into mediation this weekend.”
Two of the 20 or so union local leaders arranged behind Parsons applauded as he made the statement.
“We can turn off this strike,” he said.
However, Parsons also said his union was prepared for a strike of protracted duration.
“We always prepare for the worst case scenario by taking into consideration many aspects,” he said, “on which I cannot elaborate because that’s strategy.”