NWT Premier Bob McLeod addresses MLAs in the legislature on February 5, 2019.
NWT Premier Bob McLeod appeared to abandon a constituency meeting in a confrontation with orange-shirted activists, hours after their union served strike notice on his government.
In a series of video clips posted to Twitter by CBC journalist John Last, McLeod can be seen facing at least 20 people dressed in the Union of Northern Workers’ signature orange shirts and toques.
One man in orange can be seen asking: “Why are you encouraging members to cross the picket line? Are you ignorant? Don’t you know the history of the North?”
“I’m not encouraging them,” McLeod replied.
An infamous and violent labour dispute at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine in the early 1990s lasted 18 months, during which Royal Oak – operator of the mine – locked out the local union and had strikebreakers flown to Yellowknife to replace union members.
Nine people were killed in an underground explosion in 1992, a bombing for which Roger Warren was later convicted.
That allusion to earlier violence, and the sight of such an angry confrontation, may further distress some NWT residents and businesses who feel they have no allegiance in the conflict, and are preparing to endure apparently inevitable strike action.
Crossing the picket
Tuesday’s confrontation appeared to focus on a document shared within the territorial government, providing advice as to the process of crossing a picket line.
At 5pm, the GNWT’s internal newsletter service – Bearnet – distributed an email which, in part, provided advice for staff who wish to continue coming to work if a strike takes place.
The territorial government’s advice in its email, which carries the name of Department of Finance deputy minister David Stewart, states: “Unionized employees who are considering coming to work during job action and who have not been deemed essential or emergency are encouraged to discuss their choice with their union representative.
“If you would like to come to work during job action you must contact your most immediate non-unionized supervisor.
“If you choose to report to work, you may need to cross a picket line at the beginning or end of your work day and your supervisor will discuss with you the protocol for doing so.”
Crossing a picket line is not illegal, though Union of Northern Workers bylaws suggest the union may levy a fine of up to $500 on those who do. It is not clear from the document how that fine is enforced or collected.
“We have a process,” McLeod told those present on Tuesday evening, through heckles, referring to collective bargaining. “Participate in the process.”
Another union member repeatedly asked, “Why do we pick roads over people?” – a reference to the union’s position that the Northwest Territories should repurpose some of its infrastructure funding in order to increase workers’ salaries.
The territorial government has said much of its infrastructure spending is tied to joint federal-territorial deals – such as for the Mackenzie Valley Highway – which provide funds the NWT cannot transfer toward any other purpose.
“I can’t talk to you about collective bargaining,” McLeod told activists, echoing remarks from union leader Todd Parsons earlier in the day, who also refused to discuss collective bargaining in any detail when questioned by reporters.
As a final video clip shared by Last ends, McLeod can be seen walking out of the venue, followed by residents wearing orange shirts.
Last said he had been ejected from the meeting before filming the series of clips, telling Cabin Radio Premier McLeod had asked him to leave “on the grounds that he did not want constituents’ statements recorded.”
McLeod, the MLA for Yellowknife South, had advertised a constituency meeting to be held from 5-7pm on Tuesday at the Stanton Suites boardroom on Range Lake Road.
He had earlier made no mention of the union as he delivered a session-opening speech to fellow MLAs in the legislature, watched by Parsons in the public gallery.
At 3pm that afternoon, the Union of Northern Workers declared it had served strike notice on McLeod’s government in a dispute over pay and conditions that has lasted for more than three years.
Around 4,000 territorial government workers – at least one in three of whom did not vote for strike action, according to union figures – are now set to walk out on Monday unless the two sides somehow reach an agreement in the remaining five days.
Two days of mediation are scheduled for Friday and Saturday at Yellowknife’s Quality Inn.
Update: February 5, 2019 – 20:29 MT. We initially reported we had not seen a territorial government document said to discuss the process for crossing a picket line. A copy of the document has since been provided to Cabin Radio and this report has been updated to reflect its contents.