February’s narrowly-averted GNWT-wide strike may be receding into the past but remaining bad blood is bubbling up in the territorial election.
The Union of Northern Workers ran a two-page ad in last week’s News/North – and again in the Sept. 23 Yellowknifer – calling out MLAs standing to be re-elected for their stances in the tense final days of negotiations.
“I do believe that some of the ministers and the regular MLAs did take a stand against UNW members and residents of the Northwest Territories by choosing not to support the motion for binding arbitration,” said union president Todd Parsons.
“And that’s drawn from carefully reviewing the transcripts of the Hansard, to get a better context and understanding of each of the individuals that took the opportunity to explain their rationale for support or non-support.”
On one page of the ad, amidst graphics of storm and lightning, there are quotes from MLAs Cory Vanthuyne (Yellowknife North), Michael Nadli (Deh Cho), Herb Nakimayak (Nunakput) and Danny McNeely (Sahtu), as well as Premier Bob McLeod (who is not seeking re-election in Yellowknife South), noting that he was speaking for a cabinet that included Caroline Cochrane (Range Lake), Wally Schumann (Hay River South) and Louis Sebert (Thebacha).
These all capture their words in voting down a motion that would have allowed binding arbitration in the settlement of terse, unyielding, years-long negotiations between the GNWT and UNW over a new and past-due collective agreement.
The other, sunshine-adorned page of the ad quotes the six MLAs, all running for re-election, who voted in favour of the motion.
At the time, Parsons had put out a news release expressing support for the motion, which had been put forward by MLA Julie Green (Yellowknife Centre), and stated he would “actively oppose MLAs who stand with the premier and reject today’s motion.”
Despite the motion failing, binding arbitration was the tool used in the end to reach a new agreement.
Out of the MLAs criticized for their stances, only Vanthuyne and Sebert responded to requests for comment on the ad.
Vanthuyne directed News/North to the full transcripts of his comments, hoping to provide more context for the quote from him that appeared in the ad.
In a lengthy speech, Vanthuyne said that he did not believe negotiations should be affected by political influence, that MLAs should not be forcing a new process on negotiators, and that mediator Vince Ready had not yet declared the process to be at an impasse.
‘Hope that tool will not be lost’
“Today’s proceedings, regardless of outcome on the vote, will have no legal bearing or binding on either party involved in the collective bargaining process, as has been the case all along, and only the two parties can agree to use arbitration as a new process, a new process to continue toward reaching a tentative agreement,” stated Vanthuyne, in part, in the legislative assembly on Feb. 8
“… In the interest of getting the most effective mediation possible, I am not willing to support a new process at this time. Again, I want to be clear.
“This is not to say that I oppose arbitration as a potential tool to reach a collective agreement.
“Definitely not. I would support arbitration if the point is reached when it is needed, and I sincerely hope that tool will not be lost to us if needed.”
Sebert maintained that arbitration had not been part of the negotiation process between the GNWT and UNW for many years but that the resolution to use the tool was eventually reached naturally, as “major issues remained unsettled.”
Parsons said he did not believe that binding arbitration was on the table, as it had been removed from the process around the time the union was given the right to strike in the 1990s, until it was suggested at the end of negotiations, and he was given assurances it was legal.
Parsons said that while regular members may have had their own reasons for not showing support for the union in supporting the motion, cabinet, as representatives of the employer, acted in ways that were “very anti-union.”
“The employer is very anti-union and one significant reason for my belief that they are is during the lead-up to the mediation, hours before, the employer came out and offered a waiver to my members to cross their picket line, which is extremely anti-union as a public service body,” said Parsons.
“To my knowledge, it is the only government in Canada that has ever shamefully attempted to break a union in such a manner.
Parsons said the union was, in the end, very happy with the provisions the mediator decreed, including wage increases and limits on the use of casual workforce to encourage more full-time employment.