The Union of Northern Workers (UNW) says it was first made aware of absenteeism concerns at the Ekati diamond mine at least a year ago.
Dominion Diamond Mines is considering laying off 150 entry-level workers at the mine over what it terms "unacceptably high" rates of workers failing to turn up for their jobs.
The union is challenging Dominion, filing both a grievance with the company and an unfair labour practice complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board. Union president Todd Parsons said the complaint alleges Dominion has "basically engaged in anti-union practices and sentiment" by threatening to lay off employees and contract out their work instead.
However, Parsons admitted the UNW had known about Dominion's concerns since at least 2017. He said the union assumed absenteeism was no longer a problem when the mine operator removed a bargaining condition related to it.
"They raised with the union through bargaining, more than a year ago, that absenteeism was an issue," Parsons told Cabin Radio.
"But the employer had a bargaining demand that they withdrew from the process, so I’m not sure – if it was so important to the employer – why they would withdraw a bargaining proposal that appears to have more meaning to them than at that moment in time."
The union announced a tentative agreement with Dominion on February 2, 2017, implying absenteeism must have been raised by the employer prior to that.
Question of definition
On Friday afternoon last week, Dominion provided the union with data relating to absenteeism levels among the affected workers.
"They did not respond to all the questions we had, but the employer has provided us with some data," said Parsons, who added the union needs more time to study the data before reaching any conclusions about Dominion's claim that absenteeism is unacceptably high.
The union says Dominion has yet to provide a definition of the word 'absenteeism' to help guide the union's understanding of its concerns. Ordinarily, absenteeism is understood to be an employee's intentional or habitual absence from work without good reason.
Cabin Radio approached Dominion Diamond Mines for comment on Sunday. The company had not responded as of 2pm on Monday.
Even if absenteeism levels prove to be demonstrably high, Parsons said he would want Dominion to reject layoffs in favour of other ways to solve the problem.
"There are good and bad employees, and sometimes employees require extra human resource management," he said. "We are suggesting they should sit down with those individuals, have a conversation, and assist those employees that may be misbehaving or not able to report to work."
The union's grievance filed with Dominion centres on Article 26 of the mine workers' collective bargaining agreement which reads as follows:
"Prior to contracting out any work that directly results in a layoff of Bargaining Unit members, the Employer will notify the Union and provide the Union with the opportunity to present any proposals as an alternative. Such discussions will not delay the tendering of contracts. As of the date of this Agreement it is not the intention of the Employer to contract out any work that directly results in the layoff of Bargaining Unit members."
"That’s an article that contemplates lay-offs. What the employer has said is, as long as they consult with the union, they are free to lay off any of their employees," said Parsons.
"We differ on the interpretation of that. We see that language primarily to provide protections in the event that there is a mine closure and it is necessary to lay off large groups of employees."
Challenged that the article says nothing related to mine closures, Parsons admitted. "No, it clearly doesn’t say that. And that’s where the interpretation difference exists."
Dominion is mandated to respond to the union's written complaint by Tuesday. It has a further two weeks to respond to the separate unfair labour practice filing with the Canada Industrial Relations Board.