Documents seen by Cabin Radio detail territorial government plans to keep the Northwest Territories running during a general strike set to begin on Monday.
A 33-page internal document instructs department managers on all aspects of keeping the government afloat, from guidelines on summoning police assistance through to changing voice messages and social media passwords.
Departments “must not assume that resources from other GNWT departments, boards or agencies will be available,” warns the document, which Cabin Radio understands was distributed to senior staff earlier in February.
Accompanying the document are pages outlining the protocol for crossing a picket line, and a form unionized employees can submit if they wish to take that step.
“I confirm that I have been provided opportunity to contact the Union of Northern Workers to consider my decision and possible consequences of reporting to work during job action,” reads the form, which unionized, non-essential employees choosing to cross a picket line must sign and return.
“I confirm I am making this decision freely, voluntarily, and without duress or influence,” it continues.
“I release and forever discharge the GNWT, its employees or agents, from any action, claim or demand of whatever kind or nature that I now have or thereafter have with respect to or in any way arising out of my decision to report to work during job action.”
How is waiver distributed?
In the legislature on Friday, Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green suggested the territorial government was “fanning the flames” by making a form containing such terminology available to staff.
However, she afterwards admitted she did not know how the document had been distributed.
The union believes the GNWT has been handing out copies to staff but, as of 1pm, more than a dozen territorial government workers had contacted Cabin Radio to say they had either not seen the waiver, not been provided with the waiver, or had needed to specifically ask for the waiver in order to receive it.
“I was already looking into how to cross the picket line because I don’t agree with striking given this financial situation,” one worker, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote.
“My director talked to our staff on Wednesday to go over logistics for Friday around handing in keys. I asked him if he was the one I needed to send my desire to work. He said yes.”
The worker outlined a system whereby she was asked to email a central agency requesting the waiver, told to read an FAQ document, received a second warning about her decision from the central agency, and finally received, read, and signed the waiver, which was signed by her direct supervisor before being returned to the central agency.
“At no point did I feel pressure or coerced to do this. The GNWT has been super communicative with me and supportive,” she concluded.
Robert C McLeod, the NWT’s finance minister, rejected Green’s assertion, stating his government had an obligation to provide guidance to staff who wished to continue working.
In a short statement, the GNWT’s Department of Finance said: “The GNWT has prepared a waiver that will be available to employees to sign should they decide to report to work during job action.
“This waiver is to confirm that the employee has had the opportunity to discuss their choice with their union representative.”
Strike guidance: Union of Northern Workers information
The internal document urges managers to carefully assess all requests to cross the picket.
“When a request to report to work is received, the supervisor may consider whether the employee’s job duties are required during job action; how much work within their job description is required; whether the nature of the employee’s job duties would allow for them to work from home during job action; and what time the employee would start and end their work day during job action,” the document reads.
Supervisors can decline requests to cross the picket line, and can restrict working hours for requests they accept.
If an employee wishing to cross the picket line is prevented from doing so by action at the picket line, the document outlines steps to take – beginning by talking to the union picket line captain.
“If the delays are prolonged or if verbal or physical threats are issued,” the document states, a separate GNWT team will help to resolve the issue, “including the possibility of contacting the RCMP or seeking injunctive relief.”
Police ‘should not need to play a role’
Though the main document contains advice regarding the crossing of picket lines, the language used appears carefully chosen to avoid suggesting any such action should be encouraged or requested.
The document begins by stating the assumption that “all staff who are members of the bargaining unit will take part in the job action.”
And while police are mentioned on several pages, the document also states: “For the most part, the RCMP should not need to play a role in a situation like a labour dispute or work stoppage.”
Much of the document deals with the safety of employees and security of GNWT possessions.
“It is recommended that all employees reporting to work carry a cell phone in the event of an emergency,” a section on personal safety recommends.
An earlier section notes: “Departments will be responsible for controlling access to GNWT property.”
Applying the document to the strike notice served by the Union of Northern Workers on Tuesday, the territorial government’s various departments will be expected to gather in a wide variety of keys, key fobs, laptops, and phones when employees leave their offices on Friday.
How and where that equipment will be placed and secured, and who will do that, is not specified.
Social media and VPNs
Digital security is also dealt with.
“Departments are encouraged to change passwords to their various social media accounts,” the document recommends, appearing to envisage the possibility of GNWT Twitter or Facebook accounts being commandeered by picketing union members.
VPNs – secure connections enabling employees to access government networks from other locations, like their homes – are to be shut down for many staff while a strike takes place.
“Departments are to identify users who will require their access suspended in the event of job action,” the document states. “Suspended access to VPN cannot be reverted until after job action.”
The territorial government’s concern for what happens online during a strike extends to allegations of online abuse or harassment.
Employees who feel they are experiencing abuse online, through comments or photos, are told: “Do not engage or respond.”
Instead, they are urged to take a screenshot, print that screenshot, and file it with an incident report.
For its part, the Union of Northern Workers has distributed posters reminding members on the picket line to be careful about what they do.
“No alcohol, no cannabis, no cursing, no pushing/shoving, no violence, no threats,” reads a poster displayed by the union inside territorial government buildings this week.
The same poster instructs members not to destroy or damage property, and not to use libellous or slanderous slogans or hate messages on picket signs.
Who’s in charge?
Oversight of the territorial government’s ability to cope with a strike is held by a body known as the Job Action Steering Committee, or JASC.
Mike Aumond, the secretary to cabinet, and deputy finance minister David Stewart will lead the JASC alongside at least three other deputy heads of department, as chosen by Stewart.
Their committee will issue “GNWT-wide strategic direction” during a strike and decide which “critical functions [the government] will focus on continuing to perform.”
The JASC also decides which resources can be taken from one department and redeployed to plug gaps elsewhere. (Unionized employees crossing a picket line are only allowed to do their usual job and cannot be moved around, but anyone non-unionized can be sent where they are most needed.)
The GNWT’s director of labour relations will head up a communications team charged with keeping employees and the public informed.
The document goes on to set out various longstanding clauses related to essential and emergency workers. The former must cross the picket line as they are deemed vital to services that must be delivered; the latter can be called in to deal with emergencies as they arise, but are otherwise not expected to cross the picket.
How various forms of leave are to be handled, and how payments will be processed, are also included.