The City of Yellowknife and its employees are now over a month into a labour dispute, and I am happy to see that an end may be near.
News of a tentative deal hit the headlines as I was actively writing this column.
Being a month in, it has led me to be reflective of the things I witnessed and read during the lockout/strike. Much of it was kind, supportive and/or at least respectful. Some of it, unfortunately, was not. Social media seems to be where the worst of our behaviour comes out.
It was not uncommon to come across members of the community referring to city workers as greedy or lazy, making false comparisons, spreading misleading information and trying to incite others with unsubstantiated rumours. Fortunately, there were just as many, if not more, positive words, even from those who did not necessarily support the union’s demands.
Labour disputes are by their nature contentious, and we should not be surprised by any of this despite striving to avoid it. It does appear though that in the excitement of it all, people seem to forget a few key things. First and foremost, the right to strike is protected by the guarantees of the freedom of association in Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015 after a move by the Government of Saskatchewan to erode these rights for public service employees through legislation. More recently, the Government of Ontario tried something similar using the Constitution’s Notwithstanding Clause but backed down quickly after realizing the negative reaction they had elicited from broad swaths of the Canadian population.
Yes, it’s true no one questioned the city workers’ right to strike. However, is it really mature, or dare I say representative of the community we know and love to resort to name calling or spreading unsubstantiated rumours to try and bring others to your side?
Not easy to handle gracefully
It’s easy to say you are angry at city workers because you cannot use the pool, but it probably feels silly to say out loud that you are angry at them for exercising their rights under the Canadian Charter. Do not forget that every labour dispute has two parties: the employer and the bargaining unit members. Going on strike and being locked out are not easy things to do and handle gracefully, yet, despite a few issues, I saw picketing bargaining unit members dancing and waving at everyone as well as volunteering some time with a local organization to help out.
A recent column in this newspaper bemoaned the inconvenience of the strike all while managing to miss the point completely. Strikes are inconvenient by design. They would not be a very effective tool if they were not. We must remind ourselves that the withdrawal of labour and picketing are the final and most effective tools a union has to put pressure on an employer to agree to a fair deal at the bargaining table. If there was another way, it would have been given full consideration. Crossing a picket line is disrespectful to the city workers, who are your neighbours. Complaining about having to wait four minutes to get into the dog park completely dismisses the legitimacy of the city workers’ right to strike.
Lastly, a common comment I scrolled across during this job action was some variation of “the strike is traumatizing me because of my memories of the Giant Mine strike.” I can and do empathize with those who feel that way. That labour dispute was a dark time in this town’s history and although I was not part of the community during that time, I have spoken at length with many residents who were deeply affected by it. However, the current labour dispute is not a continuation of that job action from 30 years ago and bad memories should not be a limitation on the rights of union members to fight for a fair deal today.
This brings me to my last thought and the message of this column. Despite the contentiousness of the Giant mine strike in the 1990s, the Yellowknife I arrived to in the mid-2000s was, in my experience, one of the friendliest and most tight-knit communities I had ever visited. It was that sense of community that hooked me and kept me around. I know we have all heard more than a few stories about how someone came here for three months and retired 30 years later. We should not waste any time keeping that spirit alive.
Regardless of your thoughts about the strike/lockout, we are all still neighbours. Let’s not forget to be kind to one another.