Yellowknife’s Josee-Anne Spirito’s recent election to the position of regional executive vice-president (REVP) with the Public Service Alliance of Canada North comes at a time when workers are grappling with an ever rising cost of living and the union has been notably visible in the public eye.
Coming off two major labour disputes in 2023 – one involving the City of Yellowknife lockout in February and March and the other a nationwide strike of federal civil servants in April – REVP Spirito acknowledges that her election coincided with a time when members are more inclined to fight for their rights.
“We know workers right now are in a fight against the constant cost of living increases especially in the North and are fighting for fair wages in the current economic context,” she said in an exclusive interview, June 1. “So definitely the fights we have seen at the city and the PSAC federal employees are not going to be the last we see over the next few months.
“I’m not insinuating that we will be on strike again here soon but we will be putting pressure on employers to get fair wages for our members.”
PSAC North represents about 20,000 members across Yukon, NWT and Nunavut and is made up from employees in various federal departments, municipal governments, housing corporations and other service providers.
Spirito was elected to the position on the first ballot during the Ninth Regional Triennial Convention at Iqaluit’s Aqsarniit Hotel & Conference Centre, May 26- 28. In that contest, she defeated incumbent Lorraine Rousseau who had been in the position since 2021, and challenger Jeff Groenewegen of Hay River.
She said her victory in the Nunavut capital should carry symbolic significance as PSAC members with the Iqaluit Housing Authority have been on strike for more than 75 days, seeking better wages.A prominent issue in that strike, with broader implications across the North, is the necessity for legislation to prohibit employers from using replacement workers during a strike, she said. The union says that the housing authority has been recruiting workers from the south to replace northern employees on the picket lines – the majority of whom are Inuit.
“We have an election in the NWT in October and I think it is important that whoever is in our new government that they are aware that we need stronger labour laws,” she said, noting that the federal government needs to do the same.
“They need to be aware of what our members need and what our members need is anti-replacement worker legislation. No strike should go on for 74 days. What is happening in Iqaluit is hurting the North and hurting our members.”
Spirito has been a nurse with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority for 10 years and has advocated against the privatization of health care.
She has been directly involved with three rounds of collective bargaining on behalf of the UNW with the GNWT after first being elected to the UNW executive in 2017. Since 2021, she has served as second vice-president and was unsuccessful in an attempt to replace outgoing former UNW President Todd Parsons that same year.
She participated in some of the dramatic events leading to a narrowly averted strike by the GNWT in 2019 and was among UNW members who crashed a constituency meeting held by then-premier Bob McLeod that preceeded a tense encounter in the parking lot.
While labour leadership sometimes struggles with engaging members in the overall function of the union, Spirito says that people do seem to be more involved as they see more is on the line in their personal lives.
“There is always work to do around engagement but I do think that members are more engaged than they have been in the last decade and because of the current state of our economy,” she said, noting increasing grocery prices.
“People are more willing to stand up for themselves because it is affecting their purchasing power and quality of life. But they’re frustrated and willing to fight for (better conditions).”