It’s election season in the NWT, and the UNW is in campaign mode.
In addition to representing our members at the bargaining table and in the workplace, unions are also political activists. We lobby governments (and those who want to be in government) to improve wages and working conditions for all workers. We advocate for better rights and protections for all workers. Because we believe that all workers — whether you are in a union or not — deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.
As the union that represents the territorial public service, many of our members are essentially electing their new bosses. (If a candidate tells you that MLAs don’t really have a say in GNWT collective bargaining, make sure to remind them that it’s MLAs who approve the budget for bargaining, and they certainly do have a say when they’re reviewing, amending, and voting on the main estimates this winter).
But the decisions made in the ledge don’t just affect government workers. The UNW’s main election concerns highlight issues affecting all workers, and all NWT residents — what happens in one sector has an impact on others.
NWT health care is in crisis. Health care workers are burning out or leaving for places with better wages and working conditions. Compensation is a large part of the problem. Why would a nurse or lab tech sign an indeterminate contract when they can make more money as a contracted agency worker? If it’s more cost-effective to live in the south and work short contracts in the north, the NWT loses permanent residents and the federal funding that goes with them.
Even workers who are born, raised, and trained in the North are finding that the lack of housing, high cost of living, and inflexibility of work-life balance make it hard to stay here. Many Northerners don’t want to leave, but feel that economically they have no choice.
Sending people away for care is also not fixing the problem. NWT residents deserve health care delivered by Northerners in the North. Whoever finds themselves in the health minister’s chair this winter needs to listen to health care workers and be willing to work with the union on real solutions, not just lip service. Regular members need to keep the pressure on, and advocate for the health care of their constituents.
During the last assembly, MLAs talked a lot about recruiting and retaining Indigenous employees. The review of the GNWT’s Affirmative Action Policy was a promising step but, moving forward, the government needs to listen to its workers and find out what is, or is not, being done to actually support Indigenous workers in the workplace.
Policies can be great, but when they are not implemented correctly — or in some cases completely ignored — MLAs need to hold the government accountable. If specific training is available, it should be offered and approved; if positions are created, they need to be staffed and compensated fairly. We may have a ‘consensus-style’ government that pays lip service to the traditional ways of doing things in the North, but behind the scenes it’s a different story. Rather than make Indigenous workers fit into a colonial bureaucracy, we need to redesign the system to work better for everyone.
The UNDRIP (United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) legislation passed by the last assembly was a step in the right direction, but the new batch of MLAs need to ensure that these principles are applied throughout the public sector from hiring to collective bargaining.
The recruitment, retention, and success of Indigenous employees in our public service is essential to ensure Northerners receive culturally appropriate care and services that meet their needs and allow us all to thrive.
Over the past couple years, the NWT has seen record inflation and cost of living increases. Wages are not keeping up, and many Northerners are leaving the NWT, taking their labour, federal transfer payments, and tax dollars with them. Many who stay are tightening their budgets and spending less at local businesses.
While employers complain about labour shortages, workers are taking a hard look at these employers and what makes them competitive or not. More money in workers’ pockets means more money spent in our local economy. When Covid shut down office buildings in downtown Yellowknife, we saw the direct impact that those workers’ spending habits had on local businesses. Though some don’t like to admit it, our economy relies on stable and reliable public services, delivered by a workforce that can afford to reinvest their hard-earned dollars into our local economy.
During the week before polling day, the UNW will be publishing our Election Report Card, where we grade candidates based on Yes/No responses to questions about the topics discussed above. We’ve already received more detailed written responses and have been posting them on our website.
Check out our election webpage, and ask your candidates where they stand and what they’re willing to do to improve wages and working conditions in the NWT. Because we can’t run programs without people.