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City still open to negotiations with union: city manager

Sheila Bassi-Kellett, city manager, spoke with Yellowknifer on Wednesday afternoon regarding the city’s negotiations with the Union of Northern Workers’ bargaining team. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Sheila Bassi-Kellett, city manager, said the city was ‘dismayed’ in response to the bargaining team representing unionized employees leaving the table just before 11 a.m. on Tuesday before the city had the opportunity to table a new offer. Photo courtesy of the City of Yellowknife

Sheila Bassi-Kellett, city manager, spoke with Yellowknifer on Wednesday afternoon regarding the city’s negotiations with the Union of Northern Workers’ bargaining team. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What are the general feelings of the city now that the strike has begun?

“Well, it’s been a tough few days leading up to strike action that was implemented first thing this morning (Feb. 8) by the union.

“I’m very disappointed that things have gotten to this point, but nonetheless, I really believe that we are still able to find a path forward.

“At the end of the day, the city is seeking a fair, respectful and affordable collective agreement.

“We were dismayed when the union walked away on Tuesday morning, they walked away not just from us, (but) we had a mediator who was helping the process, they walked away from the process overall.

“We were looking forward to being able to respond to the offer that they had put on the table Monday night.

“We wanted to respond back on Tuesday but they walked before we had the opportunity to do so.”

Bassi-Kellett mentioned that creative options were going to be part of their offer to the union, but declined to tell Yellowknifer what those options were.

We’re hearing from the union that negotiations and mediation with the City has failed. What is your perspective on that?

“I feel sad, as I said, that the union walked away on Tuesday morning from the process (when) it was a matter of them waiting for us to be able to provide them with a counter offer.

“We were getting prepared to do that but they walked away before we could. We really do look forward to coming back. We hope that perhaps with the support of the mediator, we could come back to the table and have some discussions and really hope to seek to reach an agreement.”

Have you heard if the union has any intentions to return to the bargaining table at this point?

“I certainly hope they do. It’s our wish and our interest to share with them an offer that we’d like to put on the table.”

Did the City at any point decline negotiations?

“No, and as a matter of fact, our team stayed at the bargaining table all day on Tuesday.

“We had reached out through the mediator and we hoped that we would see (them) return to the table but no, that did not happen.”

How do you think a long strike can be prevented?

“By us getting back to the table. We’re ready. We’re willing, and we certainly hope that the union is.

“The only way through this is for us to discuss and to negotiate fairly, and with every intention of both sides of us seeking to reach an agreement.”

How does the cost of running the city play a role in what its staff can be paid?

“We want to balance fair and attractive pay and benefits for our staff, who are such a strong asset to the city, with the cost of delivering services to Yellowknifers.

“Every morning Yellowknifers wake up in the morning and take for granted that there will be water when they turn on their taps. When they flush, it’s gotta go away. We know that our residents rely on that, but being able to do that comes with an enormous cost.

“We have to maintain and replace pipes. We’ve got to make sure that our water is treated meet standards. We have a massive new water intake line that’s going to bring raw water from the Yellowknife River. We have to ensure that our solid waste facility and our sewage treatment all comply with the terms of our water license. These are expensive things to do.

“We always have to balance how can we spend money on the assets that we need for infrastructure, the pipes, the roads, (while) making sure that our staff are well compensated.

“The challenge for us is that every year when the city puts our budget together, we are required through legislation that we have to have a balanced budget every year. That means that expenditures have to equal our revenues.

“We’re not like the GNWT or the federal government, they can run a deficit budget.

“Any additional costs, if they pop up or find a new expense or more compensation for staff, they can add that to the deficit. They don’t have to level it out right away as we do.

“If we can’t get more revenue, then we got to make cuts to programs.”

“We know right now (that) inflation is a really pressing issue for everybody.”

Why not tie the negotiated increase to the cost of living?

“We’ve actually done the analysis on this. We looked back and compared what the negotiated increases look like and how they increased over time. We looked at that and compared it to the rate of inflation, and honestly, if our staff had been getting increases that were at the rate of inflation, they would be a lot poorer than they are right now.”

“Over the last 20 years, the cost of living increased by 37 per cent but our negotiated increases with our PSAC staff increased by 57 per cent.

“The rate of inflation is projected to come down by the end of this year and we’re really hoping that (it) can be a realistic thing that we can plan for.”