Happy anniversary to the union and territorial government collective bargaining teams.

Negotiations for a new labour deal affecting around 4,000 Government of the Northwest Territories staff enter their third year this week, as talks between the two parties resume.

The previous agreement expired in March 2016, two months into negotiations to replace it. Even after two more years of talks, there is no sign of a new deal being reached.

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On Monday, the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) intimated it would, sooner or later, take steps to force a conclusion.

“By 2019, this will all be done,” union president Todd Parsons told Cabin Radio.

Asked if he would have said the same thing a year ago about 2018, Parsons said he would not – implying the union is looking to a shift in strategy – but refused to elaborate, citing the confidentiality of the union bargaining team’s plans.

‘Hard and strong’

If January’s talks result in no meaningful progress, either the union or the territory can file for a third-party mediator to come in and negotiate a compromise. That this has yet to happen indicates both parties feel progress, even in small increments, has been made so far.

Should mediation fail to help, strike action is a theoretical future step, though not one Parsons chose to mention on Monday.

By far the biggest disagreement between the two sides centres on salary increases.

“It normally doesn’t take this long. The employer came out with a very hard and strong position that they weren’t prepared to negotiate fair wages,” is Parsons’ view of the GNWT’s position.

“Their opening offer would see no increases in the first and second year and a one percent increase in the third and fourth years. That’s still on the table, they’ve held strong to their position, and haven’t improved it.”

Fiscal reality?

The UNW is requesting a three percent year-on-year increase, which the territorial government says does “not acknowledge the GNWT’s current fiscal reality.”

“If they don’t have the money that would be a reasonable point, but it’s frustrating and confusing for the union when they posted a $180 million surplus last year,” said Parsons. “In the last two years they’ve averaged in excess of $100 million a year in operational surpluses. The government is not painting a true picture.”

In response, territorial government spokesperson Todd Sasaki provided the following statement:

“We look forward to meeting with the UNW this week and hope to help them better understand our fiscal reality.

“In brief, the GNWT has two spending budgets: the Main Estimates, which describe operational spending and the Capital Estimates, which include all infrastructure spending. The UNW statement only takes a part of the whole picture into account.

“The surpluses they refer to are operational and do not account for the capital budget. Capital spending on schools, health facilities, and on roads are important parts of our economy and our ability to deliver services to residents of the Northwest Territories.”

Parsons says securing any form of deal is unlikely if the territorial government does not improve its proposed annual wage increases. “If job security were improved we’d take another look, but we’re not seeing this employer willing to negotiate,” he said.

Earlier, Nicole MacNeil – the territory’s director of labour relations – said the GNWT was “committed to negotiating a collective agreement that meets the common objectives of agreeing upon terms and conditions of employment that recognizes both our valued public servants and fiscal sustainability of the Northwest Territories.”

On Tuesday, the GNWT will be providing its latest bargaining proposal to the UNW. Details of that proposal will appear on the GNWT’s website.