Hay River's health centre. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The union representing workers at Hay River’s health authority says it has issued a declaration of strike, but has not triggered the usual accompanying 72-hour notice of job action.
In a letter to members on Friday, Union of Northern Workers president Gayla Thunstrom said the declaration of strike was the result of an extraordinary set of circumstances brought about in part by the ongoing evacuation of Hay River.
The town has been evacuated, and its health centre closed, for almost a month.
At the start of September, the union said on its website the evacuation had disrupted attempts to meet with the health authority, and no agreement had been reached to pause proceedings.
As a result, the union said, a strike vote that took place earlier in the summer would soon expire – and with it the union’s ability to strike without holding a fresh vote, itself a difficult task with most members currently out of the territory.
Accusing the health authority of taking advantage of the circumstances “to force you into an unfair deal,” the union said it was issuing a declaration of strike – without actually beginning a strike – to ensure the strike vote did not simply expire.
“The union is still obligated to provide the employer with 72 hours’ notice in accordance with the Canada Labour Code prior to engaging in any job action,” Thunstrom told members on Friday.
“We are returning to the table on September 13. With the declaration, we have protected the bargaining power provided to your team by your significant strike mandate.
“We know this is not great timing. However, the reasons why you provided us the strike mandate have not changed: concessions, an economic offer that does not meet today’s needs, an expired collective agreement and staffing issues.”
By email, Hay River health authority chief executive officer Erin Griffiths said: “Right now, we believe that our best chance at reaching a deal is by not commenting on this in the media.”
In strike votes at the start of July, the UNW said an “overwhelming majority” of 240 or so staff at the town’s health authority backed job action. (The union has consistently not disclosed the full results of such votes.)
Strike votes expire after 60 days.
The earliest that Hay River healthcare workers could have walked out was August 19 but, by that point, virtually every resident had been displaced for almost a week.
If a strike does eventually take place, the health authority has said it will “continue to deliver services to the extent necessary to prevent an immediate or serious danger to the health and safety of the public.”
Hay River’s health authority – a separate entity to the NWT health authority – says it is offering workers 1.5-percent annual pay increases for 2021-22 and 2022-23, matching the increases received by territorial government staff in their collective agreement for the same period.
The health authority says its offer is highly competitive and it is trying to avoid a staff walkout. The union, by contrast, has said the offer is not enough.
The last collective agreement for Hay River health workers expired in 2021. The current disagreement is over a deal that, even if it is eventually signed, will have expired months ago, necessitating an immediate return to bargaining.