A motion urging the territorial government to enter binding arbitration with the Union of Northern Workers was voted down by MLAs on Friday.
MLAs voted down the motion by 11 votes to six, with one abstention.
Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, and Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart moved the motion, which called on cabinet to “agree to enter into binding arbitration before the scheduled strike begins.”
A strike featuring territorial government and NWT Power Corporation workers is set to begin on Monday if mediation this weekend fails.
The motion’s route to majority support had appeared in doubt as the day began, and the NWT’s seven cabinet members – Premier Bob McLeod, Glen Abernethy, Caroline Cochrane, Robert C McLeod, Alfred Moses, Wally Schumann, and Lou Sebert – voted against it en-bloc, as expected.
The premier has said the territory must “follow the process” – the legislation governing collective bargaining, which does not include binding arbitration.
Green and the union argue binding arbitration is still an option open to both sides, even if legislation does not cover it.
The legislation in question did feature binding arbitration until 1996, when it was removed – with the union’s consent – in exchange for the right to strike, which had not previously existed.
“I’ve lost confidence that the process we’re engaged in now is going to produce a result,” said Green.
Testart called on the legislature to “end the uncertainty and fear that has gripped our communities” as he supported Green, adding: “This motion is not about taking a side with the union or the government.”
Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne, who disagreed, opened by stating: “I do not need to be reminded of the impacts of a strike. I lived it.”
Vanthuyne, a member of a steelworkers’ union at Yellowknife’s Con Mine during the Giant Mine strike of the early 1990s, urged colleagues to let the current process continue, but keep arbitration as a future tool if needed.
Tom Beaulieu, the MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, said: “Let’s give [mediator Vince Ready] the opportunity. I’m sure we’re paying him good money.
“There’s information saying people who vote against this motion want a strike,” said Beaulieu, who abstained from the vote. “That is ridiculous. I don’t know one person here who supports a strike.”
Cabinet, Vanthuyne, Sahtu MLA Danny McNeely, Nunakput MLA Herb Nakimayak, and Dehcho MLA Michael Nadli voted against the motion.
Hay River North MLA RJ Simpson, Mackenzie Delta MLA Frederick Blake Jr, Testart, Green, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson, and Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly supported it.
Who would arbitrate?
Binding arbitration would see an independent third party assess both sides’ claims and come up with a final decision which all involved must accept. (Mediation also involves an independent third party, but a mediator can only make non-binding recommendations.)
In a statement, the Union of Northern Workers earlier threatened “targeted strike activities … in ridings of those MLAs who did not stand in support of this motion.”
Todd Parsons, the union leader, said by email he found it ‘weird’ that the territorial government was refusing his union’s offer of relinquishing its right to strike in favour of collective bargaining.
However, cabinet members have maintained their government cannot agree to a method of resolving the conflict which is not set out in legislation.
“We think it is better that elected leaders (UNW and GWNT) and the people they represent retain the right to decide on the terms of an agreement,” wrote Abernethy in an open letter to his Great Slave constituents.
“To agree to binding arbitration before mediation essentially ensures that there is little incentive to negotiate at mediation.
“The parties’ focus should be on reaching an agreement at the upcoming mediation that can be put to a vote of the UNW membership before we start contemplating turning the decision over to an arbitrator.”
It is not clear where the rules for binding arbitration would come from if the two sides were, eventually, to agree to pursue that path.
The two would first have to agree a framework for arbitration – possibly by borrowing the text of legislation from another jurisdiction – and appoint a mutually agreeable arbitrator, or potentially ask a court to appoint one for them.
Testart, the Kam Lake MLA, said the process could move forward quickly, arguing labour relations technically remains a federal power that has not been devolved. That means the sides could use the Canadian labour code’s arbitration process – or one provided by the Canadian Industrial Relations Board.
However, the process of finalizing how binding arbitration will work and appointing an arbitrator could still take weeks, especially given the two sides’ inability to agree on many significant issues over three years of collective bargaining.