A Union of Northern Workers official turns away members of Local 1 at the union's headquarters on Saturday, February 9, 2019. The union said its meeting space was at capacity and told those waiting to return at a later time.
Union locals across the Northwest Territories scrambled to organize their members as the NWT moved within 36 hours of what amounts to a general strike.
Many locals held meetings to discuss logistics on Friday and Saturday, as last-ditch mediation between the territorial government and Union of Northern Workers continued.
If those talks fail, around 2,000 territorial government and power corporation workers are expected to walk out on Monday morning.
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said mediation ran “well into the evening” with both sides “working hard.” No further information on progress was immediately available, with mediator Vince Ready due to conclude talks on Saturday evening.
The Union of Northern Workers published its latest set of proposals regarding working conditions – a lengthy, annotated document which appeared, in its tone, to suggest some areas of compromise could be reached. The territorial government’s equivalent proposals were not immediately available.
Members turned away
From government and union leaders down, very few NWT residents have any experience of a strike of this scale – a fact which became apparent as union locals convened emergency meetings.
Members of Local 1, which represents the majority of GNWT workers based in Yellowknife, reported more than 100 people being turned away from a 1pm meeting at the Union of Northern Workers’ headquarters as the meeting space had reached its capacity.
Those turned away were instructed to head to Mildred Hall School’s gym for 3pm by union officials, when a second meeting would be arranged.
“First come, first served,” one official told those trying to get in.
Meanwhile, at a Friday evening meeting of Local 11 – which represents workers at Stanton Territorial Hospital – there was confusion over the issue of strike pay.
Earlier on Friday, in a series of four phone calls, union finance director Kim Bailey told Cabin Radio all members picketing on Monday – across the NWT, in any affected local – would now receive 60 percent of their gross daily GNWT pay, for at least an opening two-week period should a strike last that long.
Yet at a packed meeting for union members on Friday evening, Local 11 leader Frank Walsh told those present the 60 percent figure would not apply on Monday.
“In the event of a general strike, we are paid as per the Public Service Alliance of Canada, that’s $117 per day,” said Walsh.
However, when reached via Facebook Messenger on Saturday morning, Walsh admitted he did not know what strike pay members would receive.
“I am currently seeking an answer for this myself,” he wrote. “This is critical information which I was not aware of until early this morning.”
Walsh pledged to return with an update. No such update was available as of 1:30pm on Saturday.
‘What do we do?’
In a recording of Local 11’s meeting obtained by Cabin Radio, Walsh can be heard stating the 60 percent figure would only apply if “we change our strategy and go to a strategic strike – rotating by community, by riding or constituency – and there is no solid plan in place for that.”
However, Bailey said a “strategic strike” simply referred to paying members more money in the opening weeks of a strike, with a view to increasing the strength of industrial action and applying pressure to the employer.
The discrepancy illustrated how leaders of union locals across the NWT, facing a barrage of questions from members who mostly possess no strike experience, were trying their best to deliver answers often with little or no certainty themselves.
Local 28 president Cary Ingram, who represents Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission staff, sent an email to the local’s members on Friday telling them to disregard the 60 percent pay announcement entirely as “this has not been settled on and the details are not finalized.”
Union finance director Bailey, asked about the email’s contents on Friday afternoon, categorically denied Ingram’s assertion and reaffirmed the pay offer applied to all involved.
Back at Friday evening’s Local 11 meeting, anxious union members could be heard sounding concerned about the safety and wellbeing of all involved.
Early in the meeting, one member asked local president Walsh – who, unlike many in the NWT, has prior experience of strike action in other areas of Canada – to tell her what to do on Monday morning, when job action begins.
“We live in a democracy. I am not in a position to tell you what to do,” Walsh can be heard replying.
The woman responded, “But we have no idea what we’re doing!”
‘A very GNWT strike’
By the time the meeting had run for another hour, the local had begun to establish where and when people might congregate near Stanton Hospital to form a picket line.
In that time, questions for local leaders ranged from concerns about delaying patients and staff heading to emergencies, to queries about carpooling and building safety – the latter two leading one onlooker to suggest “a very GNWT strike” may be about to take place.
“I don’t understand why you’d slow down contractors and affect the safety [of the hospital building],” one woman asked, on hearing how the picket line is legally able to detain anyone for several minutes.
Another member can be heard responding: “But if a strike doesn’t affect people, what’s the point?”
“This is really uncharted territory,” Walsh told the meeting. “Something to this extent has never happened in this country. You’re talking about an entire public service.
“We’re going to learn something new every day. You need to be patient with us.”