Fear and uncertainty across NWT as strike inches closer

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Hospitals, college campuses, small businesses, and even sports coaches are frantically, apprehensively preparing for a strike set to begin across the Northwest Territories on Monday.

Four thousand territorial government workers will join power corporation staff on the picket line unless deals are somehow reached in the next three days.

Nurses say patients will be at risk if some hospital staff walk out, students fear their studies will be ruined, business contracts are already being cancelled, and the participation of volunteers at a major Canada-wide sports event is in question.

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The NWT Power Corporation reassured residents it "will ensure reliable electricity service is maintained" if a strike goes ahead.

Meanwhile, some workers complained of union threats as they contemplated crossing the picket line.

'Weird turn of events,' says union

On Friday, MLAs will vote on whether the territory should pursue binding arbitration, which the Union of Northern Workers has offered.

However, the territorial government has at least 120 days to respond to that vote under the legislature's procedural rules – which could render the outcome no more than symbolic.

"Both parties could ... bring in a third, unbiased party to review and discuss all outstanding issues, and make specific recommendations that the employer and union agreed in advance to accept and abide by," Todd Parsons, the union leader, told Cabin Radio by email – adding the union would give up its right to strike as a result.

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"The union is confident that an arbitrator would award the union with, at a minimum, something better than what the employer in both bargaining units is offering. And that is probably why the employer is unwilling to even consider the offer. But again, we would accept the risk together.

"Offering to give up our right to strike (and likely won’t ever again) is momentous and nearly unheard of in labour," Parsons wrote. "It is a weird turn of events that the union would make this offer and the employer would refuse."

Binding arbitration was once part of the legislation dealing with NWT collective bargaining, but was replaced by the right to strike in 1996.

In detail: Why won't the GNWT accept binding arbitration?

While Parsons wrote to Cabin Radio regarding binding arbitration, he said he was too busy to be interviewed.

The Union of Northern Workers has not yet provided an interview or information to Cabin Radio regarding the logistics of the strike, a confrontation between union activists and Premier Bob McLeod on Tuesday, a failed strike vote at Hay River’s health authority, the impact on private business, the impact on healthcare, and the effect on volunteers heading to the Canada Winter Games with Team NT.

"Our members are our number one priority and we have been all hands on deck to focus on them," Kim Bailey, a union spokesperson, wrote in an email on Wednesday evening.

The territorial government acknowledged an interview request on Wednesday morning and pledged to provide a spokesperson, but had not done so by Thursday afternoon.

Student association urges arbitration

Across the NWT, there appeared to be considerable confusion as to what would happen if a strike took place.

The territory, from its union and government leaders down, has very little experience of a strike this large. Many workers posting online said they were struggling to understand their duties during a strike, did not know what they would risk by crossing a picket line, and had no idea what would happen to them if they woke up on Monday to a strike.

Members of union locals attempted to answer questions and direct enquiries, but the flow of information was reported to differ significantly from local to local.

UNW website: Union information regarding strike action

At the legislature, a group of Aurora College students arrived hoping to petition Premier Bob McLeod to reach a deal and avert a strike.

Unlike school teachers, college faculty members are part of an affected bargaining unit and would be among those expected to walk out.

"We want 100 percent certainty that a strike will not take place on Monday," said Samantha Morandin, president of the college's student association, as she called for binding arbitration to go ahead.

"A strike could prolong our school year and end up putting more financial burden on us. Our fourth-years who are graduating are not going to be able to actually contribute to our society, and that's a concern for everybody here."

Events scheduled by the territorial government were being cancelled as the strike drew nearer without resolution.

As an example, a mental health first aid course planned for February 19-21 – said to have had 12 confirmed attendees and a further eight on a waitlist – was scrapped by the Department of Health and Social Services.

A well-known Yellowknife caterer said provision of food for that event was among a number of its territorial government contracts to have been cancelled in the run-up to the strike.

Nurses 'can't handle all of it'

At Stanton Territorial Hospital, nurses said they would not be able to guarantee patient safety if colleagues head out on strike.

One nurse, who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter, told Cabin Radio "half of our staff" would be missing from midnight on Monday if the strike goes ahead.

"It’s just scary, right? To not have that assistance and still be expected to take care of patients to the same extent – none of us feel that’s safe," they said.

"We’re going to have to focus on our priorities. When it comes to bathing people and helping them to eat, that’s going to be put on the back burner. We won’t be able to handle all of it."

Many, but by no means all, healthcare staff are considered essential services workers, which means they must work through the strike in order to preserve some level of service for NWT residents.

Other than being told to carry letters proving their essential status when crossing a picket line, the nurse said there was "not really" a plan, that they knew of, for what would happen on Monday.

"There’s extensive research on nursing burnout and the risk of accidents and mistakes," they said. "Most importantly it’s patient safety and making sure everyone is OK, but no-one is going to back us up if something happens. At least that’s a fear that we have.

"I feel what the union is asking for is necessary," the nurse said, referring to union demands such as improved working conditions, "but I don’t feel that a strike is the most reasonable option, especially in our situation.

"The fact that a strike can affect the functioning of a hospital is terrifying."

'No way I'd back out'

There is even uncertainty regarding the participation of territorial government staff as volunteer coaches and chaperones at the Canada Winter Games, due to begin in Red Deer next week.

Territorial government workers are ordinarily granted paid leave to accompany sports teams to such events as representatives of the NWT.

The threat of a strike has sewn confusion as nobody is sure how certain rules apply to this situation. For example, union members must ordinarily contribute four hours per day to strike activities (such as picketing) to qualify for strike pay – but coaches volunteering with Team NT in Red Deer will not have that option.

Sport North, the agency which manages Team NT, said it had asked individual sports organizations to supply contingency plans "in the event a coach cannot attend due to the strike."

"At the end of the day, the safety and wellbeing of our athletes is front and centre," said Bill Othmer, Team NT's chef de mission for the Canada Winter Games.

"There is no way I would back out on kids at this stage in the game," said Kerry Egan, a speed skating team manager, as she waited to hear back from the union.

"I was named the team manager in 2016 and I’ve been working with some of them for the past 12 years. This is a big deal for them, a big experience.

"It is placing people in a terrible position. Strike pay is not much but it’s certainly food for the day … it’s making coaches who have put years into this make a really tough choice."

Crossing the picket

Some union members appeared set to make a different form of tough choice, telling CBC News they were ready to cross picket lines on Monday and head to work.

Three members, requesting anonymity, separately told Cabin Radio they had been threatened by union representatives and told they would be 'terminated' if they attempted to take such action.

While crossing a picket line is not illegal, the Union of Northern Workers' bylaws appear to set a maximum $500 fine for doing so, alongside risk of expulsion from the union.

The constitution of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, of which the union is a component, makes similar provisions for a fine and expulsion.

However, there are questions regarding the ability of the union to enforce any such measures.

Suspension or expulsion does not remove someone from the bargaining unit, and does not affect their right to representation during a grievance with their employer. It is not clear what administrative capacity the union possesses to track and process incidents if workers begin to cross pickets in significant numbers.

Furthermore, Canadian courts have in the past ruled against unions trying to collect fines from members.

Courts in both Ontario and Alberta found against unions suing members for unpaid fines, and the Supreme Court of Canada declined in both instances to hear the unions' appeals.