Minor disruption remains as GNWT strike threat clears

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Residents of the NWT were being briefed on lingering disruption to some territorial government departments as the prospect of a general strike evaporated on Sunday.

The Union of Northern Workers and territorial government reached an agreement shortly after midnight to hand control of negotiations to mediator Vince Ready, who is expected to return with binding recommendations in a month's time.

That agreement saw the union call off a strike scheduled to begin on Monday, but some GNWT operations will remain disrupted through earlier precautions taken in the event of a strike, such as preemptive cancellations of appointments.

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On Sunday, the territory's health authority told patients that appointments already cancelled for Monday or Tuesday would remain cancelled.

Starting on Sunday, the health authority said, its staff would be working to rebook appointments and procedures that were affected.

"You will be contacted this week to confirm your new appointment dates and times," read a health authority statement.

"If you were not contacted directly about a change in your appointment, as part of preparation for possible job action, please continue to attend your scheduled appointment."

Some residents seemed to be having success at getting their original appointments restored, despite the health authority's stated advice.

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One resident, Candice Lys, told Cabin Radio her appointment for Monday had been reactivated for the same time, despite being cancelled last week.

Residents with questions were told by the health authority to contact their local health provider directly.

Meanwhile, Aurora College advised students and staff that its campuses and community-based learning centres would open for classes as usual on Monday, with all courses in progress continuing as scheduled.

However, the college said in a tweet, courses scheduled to start on Monday have been postponed.

"More information about those classes will be shared shortly," the college said.

There remained no immediate update on a separate strike by NWT Power Corporation workers, which was also set to go ahead on Monday.

The power corporation has its own mediation process with the union which was not due to resume until Tuesday.

Meetings related to that strike were understood to be scheduled for later on Sunday.

'Cool heads prevailed'

As freshly unburdened residents enjoyed an unusually warm Sunday across some of the territory, the NWT's politicians expressed their own relief at the avoidance of a strike.

"I’m sure it wasn’t easy and that there was a lot of pressure on both teams," Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart posted to Facebook, referring to two long days of mediation which culminated in the late-night announcement of a way forward.

"I am glad that cool heads and sound judgment prevailed at the end of the day," said Testart, who seconded Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green's motion at the legislature on Friday calling on cabinet to enter into binding arbitration at the union's request.

Sunday's jointly announced solution in effect gave the union its desired binding arbitration, at the hands of mediator Ready, while allowing the territorial government to claim it had followed the process set out in legislation by concluding mediation and electing to accept the mediator's recommendations – when they are eventually made.

A media blackout imposed by Ready means neither side is able to go into any detail about that process, or its proposals or concerns, until Ready's now-mandatory recommendations are made public.

Had that compromise not been reached, the union had planned to divide workers according to the result of Green's Friday motion – with targeted strike action from Tuesday in the constituencies of the 11 MLAs who opposed that motion. (Those MLAs said they did so in the best interests of what they saw as the appropriate bargaining process. Some did not rule out supporting binding arbitration at a later date, had mediation failed.)

Caroline Cochrane, the education minister and MLA for Range Lake, was one of those to vote against the motion and so would have seen her riding targeted had that strike plan been activated.

"Thank God for calm minds and mediation with the best interest of the people forefront," she posted to Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the deal being announced.

The timeline for Ready to make his recommendations suggests the territory and union – and thousands of workers – should have clarity on the likely terms of a new collective agreement by mid-March.

However, the relief may be somewhat short-lived.

A four-year collective bargaining agreement like the last one would only extend to next year, as negotiations to replace the expired agreement have dragged on since January 2016.

That could afford both parties only nine months' grace before having to start the process from scratch.

Even a five-year deal would see the two sides back at the table less than two years from now.

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