Economy

‘Learn lessons’ from bitter bargaining, NWT minister warns


The NWT’s finance minister urged his government and union leaders to “learn lessons” and avoid repeating an acrimonious bargaining process that now appears, at last, to be resolved.

Binding recommendations from an independent mediator were published on Monday. A five-year collective agreement is to be signed, with pay increases above those offered by the territorial government but below those demanded by the Union of Northern Workers.

Robert C McLeod, the finance minister, said the length of the deal was “very helpful” as it provides a break from years of negotiations since the last collective agreement expired in 2016.

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As the agreement is backdated to 2016, the five-year term means it will expire – and negotiations will resume – in 2021.

McLeod also said the pay increases mandated by mediator Vince Ready “still fit within the fiscal framework” of his government, despite previous insistence that the NWT had no money to cover any but the most marginal of salary increases.

“It’s not like we’ll have to take money away from anything to put towards this,” said McLeod. “I think we put ourselves in a fairly good position to absorb this when the recommendations came in.”

The Union of Northern Workers declined an interview request from Cabin Radio.

An emailed response on behalf of union leader Todd Parsons read: “Thanks for the opportunity. Our primary focus is on communicating directly with our members to maintain the integrity of the information.”

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Negotiations over this collective agreement, which affects 4,000 workers, lasted for more than three years and gradually devolved into a bitter stand-off, culminating in the threat of strike action.

A strike was averted 24 hours before it was due to begin, as the two sides agreed to let mediator Ready rule on outstanding issues.

McLeod – who is to step away from territorial politics, after 15 years, at this fall’s election – said his government had taken “the high road” in the dispute, adding he regretted no aspect of the territory’s conduct during negotiations.

He said the two sides should look to start negotiations earlier in future, and be more honest with each other when they do so.

“At the end of the day, we should be thinking about the people that we represent and do what we can, that’s best for them, without causing them a lot of undue stress. And I think this did cause a lot of undue stress,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want to see our employees going through that again. I know a lot of them personally, a lot of them here in Inuvik, and I knew it was fairly stressful on them.

“I think a lot of them, when they do go into the next round [of collective bargaining, in 2021], if [the union] is out looking for strike mandate, I think they’re going to be giving that some serious thought and maybe voting against the strike mandate – comments I heard from a few of them.

“There are a few lessons learned, I think, for everybody involved.”

A detailed transcript of Cabin Radio’s interview with Robert C McLeod is provided below.


Hear this interview in full on Tuesday’s edition of Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News, from 12pm MT >> Listen live


This interview was recorded on March 25, 2019. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: What are your overall thoughts on what the mediator has recommended?

Robert C McLeod: I’m pleased with the the final recommendations. The fact that we got a five-year deal, I think, is very helpful. Folks will have a bit of time before they go into the next round of negotiations. We have five years and an increase [in salary] that still fits within the fiscal framework we were working with, so we were pleased at that. There were some other things, like the $250 increase to the northern allowance. I think that one was very good.

It was a difficult process, putting the fate of our negotiations into the hands of a third party, and hopefully in the future our government and the union can work out something between themselves where we don’t have to go through the process again of having a third party decide some of our conditions.

How concerned were you when it did go to a third party? Of course, we averted a strike and a good many people were very grateful for that. But how worried were you that it might have had a negative long-term impact on the NWT if the recommendations came back, and they were simply too high – in your view – for the government to cope?

That’s a risk you take when you go to a third party. But I was quite confident, with the case that was presented from both sides, that the mediator would come back with something that wasn’t overly burdensome on the government, as well as not taking away too much from the union as well. He seemed to have found a fairly good balance. I was fairly confident he would come back with some very solid recommendations,

The recommendations for year-on-year salary increases that have been made are slightly higher than those that the territorial government had on the table. How will the territorial government account for that? Where will the money come from to fund these increases?

Well, as part of our framework when we were going into the negotiations, we had a bit of money earmarked for events such as this. It’s not like we’ll have to take money away from anything to put towards this. I think we put ourselves in a fairly good position to absorb this when the recommendations came in.

Talk us through some of the other developments. I know there are many elements to this agreement, what are some of the others that you would pick out as being important here – for example, like term employees and changes there?

First of all, the five years, I think, was a very good recommendation. It gives folks an opportunity to digest this one before they get [into the next] negotiations. There was a lot of pressure and stress on a lot of the employees and the government, as well as on some of the leadership. This will help alleviate that, and the employees will know that they have a few years before they get into negotiations again.

And there were some other things, like you said, talking about the term employees, and then some leave for domestic violence. There were some elements that he [mediator Vince Ready] incorporated from what the government wanted, as well as what the union wanted. The man has a reputation of being one of the better mediators in the country and I think he found a very good balance.

You’ve been on record, last month in the legislature, as really expressing quite some distaste for the way that some of this negotiation happened – and some of the things that were being said, both in the House and outside the House. What do you regret about the way that this collective bargaining process was handled?

On our part, I don’t regret anything really. I think we took the high road throughout the whole negotiation, we tried to keep the public service up to date on some of the offers on the table, we put our offers on the website. It was unfortunate, some of the events that took place, but this was part of the negotiation. And I think it was a lesson learned for everyone involved – so we don’t have to go through this again, the next time. On our part, I think we we were OK. There were some events that took place that were unfortunate, but that’s part of negotiations between a union and a government.

You mentioned you hope that we don’t have to go through it again. You, of course, are stepping down at this fall’s election, so you won’t have to go through a bargaining process like this again. But when you talk about lessons learned, what kind of lessons do you think we have learned on all sides here? The next time this happens will only be a couple of years away, in 2021.

I think some of the lessons learned are just a way of bargaining, and starting a little earlier, I think, would be helpful. We were a little late, I think, getting started on this one – the union, I think, was going through some elections, so we were a little late in getting started.

And putting everything on the table and just being up-front with each other. At the end of the day, we should be thinking about the people that we represent and do what we can, that’s best for them, without causing them a lot of undue stress. And I think this did cause a lot of undue stress. I wouldn’t want to see our employees going through that again. I know a lot of them personally, a lot of them here in Inuvik, and I knew it was fairly stressful on them.

I think a lot of them, when they do go into the next round [of collective bargaining, in 2021], if [the union] is out looking for strike mandate, I think they’re going to be giving that some serious thought and maybe voting against the strike mandate – comments I heard from a few of them. There are a few lessons learned, I think, for everybody involved.

Finally, this is of course a binding recommendation but that still means the parties have to get together and figure out how to implement it. When do you expect that everything will be signed, sealed, delivered, and everything will be implemented?

I think the 1.6 percent [pay increase] was for this past fiscal year, and that ends on March 31. I know our folks are working out some… there will obviously be some retro pay. We’re working that out.

And then as far as actually signed, sealed, and delivered? To be quite honest with you, Ollie, I’m not quite sure when that’s going to take place. But we’re coming up to April 1, and that’s the start of the new fiscal year, so I would think that many of the elements in the agreement would take effect April 1.

Note: A representative for the minister later clarified these remarks as follows: “Non-monetary issues [will come into effect[ 30 days after the report was issued. Monetary increases will be in place for the first payday in April – retroactive pay will follow ASAP after that.”

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