Some territorial government workers expressed concern as the Union of Northern Workers moved toward a strike vote deemed premature by their employer.

The union and the territory are more than two years into negotiations for a new collective agreement governing around 4,000 NWT residents’ pay and working conditions.

Negotiations late last month were termed an “insult” by the union, which is now organizing a strike vote.

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But in public social media posts, a number of government workers appeared confused by the registration process used for the vote and unsure of the union’s position.

“This whole negotiation has been a shit show,” a territorial government employee close to union leaders told Cabin Radio. The individual requested anonymity to speak candidly about union matters.

The strike vote called by union president Todd Parsons is “a clear tool to use as a stick for negotiations,” they added. “Todd hasn’t shown any indication of making any movement at all and his closed communication is a deliberate tactic to massage the vote into a ‘yes’ vote.”

‘Trying to avoid a strike’

Contacted by Cabin Radio, the union defended its stance and processes.

“Yes, we have heard that some of our members are experiencing fear and stress on what the future may hold,” said union communications officer Jennifer Wright by email.

“We regret that they are, however we can’t be characterized as rushing the vote when we have been in negotiations for over two years with no sign of a deal. We are in fact trying to avoid a strike as we have yet to invoke all the provisions granted to us under the Public Service Act.”

On that, the union and territorial government agree.

By email on Monday, Nicole MacNeil – the territory’s director of labour relations – said only one of several mandatory legal conditions had been met for strike action to go ahead.

MacNeil provided the following written summary of those conditions:

1. The collective agreement must have expired.

2. An Essential and Emergency Services Agreement must be in place. While much work has been done, the GNWT and the UNW do not have a signed-off Essential and Emergency Services Agreement in place. This agreement outlines services that are necessary to ensure the continuation of minimal services to:

a. Protect the health and safety of the public;
b. Prevent destruction or serious deterioration of machinery, equipment or premises; and
c. Prevent disruption of the administration of the courts.

3. 21 days have elapsed since a mediator was appointed by the parties. When the parties have negotiated in good faith but are unable to reach an agreement, a party may provide notice to submit the outstanding issues to a mediator. Mediation under the PSA involves a neutral third party who assists in reaching an agreement. At the time of this message, UNW has not provided the GNWT with notice of mediation.

4. The union has provided the GNWT 48 hours advance notice in writing of its intention to strike.

“At the time of this message, only one of these requirements has been met – the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement,” wrote MacNeil.

Wright, representing the union, said: “By triggering a strike vote we remain optimistic that the employer will come back to the table, and provide us with a fair and reasonable offer.”

Vote terminology

It’s not clear if the union’s vote is a strike vote or a strike mandate vote, which are usually considered distinct processes with different outcomes.

The union has used the terminology “strike vote” throughout, which is ordinarily associated with a final decision on initiating industrial action and walking out. This, according to the Public Service Act, is not legally achievable until the above steps are completed.

Strike mandate votes are used earlier in the process and can give a union bargaining team more power at the table, as they indicate union members’ willingness to go on strike if an employer’s offer does not improve.

The key sticking point in the two years of negotiations to date has been year-on-year salary increases. The union is seeking a three percent annual increase, while the territory says its financial situation only allows for two years of frozen base salaries followed by two annual increases of around one percent each.