Union members protesting outside the territorial legislature demanded ministers drop the NWT’s infrastructure spending to increase government workers’ wages.

As bargaining over a new collective agreement continues, the Union of Northern Workers and territorial government have repeatedly clashed over the amount of money the territory has at its disposal.

The territorial government says its operational surpluses are partly used to build things like schools, health facilities, and housing. The union wants some of those surpluses diverted to pay for larger annual wage increases.

Currently, the territory is offering a two-year wage freeze followed by annual increases of 1% and 1.1%. The union’s demands begin at 3% per year.

“We are getting to a breaking point,” Todd Parsons, the union president, told Cabin Radio.

“We know they’ve had more than $400 million in operational surpluses in the last three years. They’re choosing to spend all their money on infrastructure. We need to invest in the public service as well.”

Nicole Tews, the union’s second vice-president, said: “We’ve seen that the money is there. I’m not saying don’t invest in infrastructure, but invest in both.”

Parsons said he was “very confident” of receiving a strike mandate from members through strike votes the union recently held, but had no timeline for the possibility of strike action. Both sides must engage in mediation through an independent third party, and the union must meet other criteria, before a strike can legally take place.

The union is also demanding more job protection for government workers, claiming 150 positions have been lost in recent years.

‘We don’t believe them’

Since the start of collective bargaining, more than two years ago, the territorial government has consistently warned its financial situation – which it characterizes as a period of unprecedented stagnation in its ability to generate revenue – will not support significant wage increases for workers.

Much of the money spent on infrastructure in the Northwest Territories is tied to significant parcels of federal funding. For example, the recent announcement of more than $500 million in federal funding for NWT infrastructure comes with a condition that the territory fund 25 percent of each project for which the federal cash is used – meaning, in practice, the territory must set aside around $200 million for those projects.

After the last round of negotiations with the union, in January, the GNWT said its proposal “attempts to address issues raised by the UNW at the bargaining table in an operationally and fiscally responsible manner.”

“Frankly, we don’t believe them,” said Dawna O’Brien, the union’s regional vice-president for Hay River. “We don’t have a fair wage right now.”

Regular MLAs Kevin O’Reilly and Kieron Testart appeared at Friday’s protest outside the legislature in Yellowknife.

“We have had no input into the position put out there by cabinet,” said O’Reilly. “I can’t support the wage offer that’s on the table. We need to have something that’s closer to the consumer price index increase. I think that’s only fair.

“This government has been very focused on controlling expenditures and debt. We’ve got newly acquired authority under Devolution, and the reason was that we were going to do a better job at managing our resources than the federal government.

“Yet we have done nothing. They haven’t really looked at the opportunities there to raise more revenues.”