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Lee Selleck: City makes residents pay for its mistakes

The City of Yellowknife has mishandled bargaining with its workforce, and residents are paying the price.
The City of Yellowknife has mishandled bargaining with its unionized employees, according to Lee Selleck. NNSL file photo

The City of Yellowknife has mishandled bargaining with its workforce, and residents are paying the price.

For a month now, we have not been getting the services we pay for, including use of recreational facilities, the library, recycling and composting, road maintenance and snow removal, and much more. Some of our kids are playing sports in Behchoko and Hay River.

The City tells us it had to lock out 192 members of its staff to block the union from opting for something less than a full strike by all members at once. Contrary to the City’s position, limited or rotating strike action might have had less impact on services to residents.

One wonders if the City simply wants to save money for a while by suspending services with impunity, blaming the union for it. Looking at the budget for 2023, it appears that the City is saving about $2-million a month on wages and benefits, most of which usually goes into Yellowknife’s economy. There is disruption on many levels, and for some families more than others.

This is happening because a deal was not negotiated in 2021 before the last contract lapsed, when terms would likely have been less costly than they will be now. Inflation is squeezing everyone’s finances and the labour market has tightened, putting upward pressure on wages. The City’s answer to its strategic errors is unwillingness to compromise on wages to reach a new contract.

Worse, the City has alienated its employees (our neighbours) with tactics unlikely to achieve good results. These include emails to staff undermining the union, and applying for (and initially getting, to the court’s discredit) injunction terms inconsistent with current law in Canada.

This is not to say union members’ conduct has been perfect. Frustration is inevitable among union supporters, City supporters, and everyone else too. Public sentiment can lead one party or another to think they are ‘winning,’ even as real-life losses mount.

The dynamic of work stoppages like this always spills into the lives of all of us, as it is currently doing. Conflict hardens the wills of the employer and the union, and compromise becomes still more difficult. And yet, the only path to a deal is through compromise and consideration. It is time for the City to quit hiding behind misleading PR and bogus restrictions on public council presentations.

It is time to start working on a deal.

—Lee Selleck is a journalist, editor and author. He wrote the book Dying For Gold, which examines the Giant Mine strike/lockout in the 1990s. He has lived in Yellowknife since 1981.