MLAs rejected a motion by MLA Julie Green to seek binding arbitration ahead of a looming strike.
They voted down the motion 11 to 6, with one abstention.
MLAs Daniel McNeely, Cory Vanthuyne, Michael Nadli, Herb Nakimayak and cabinet, which voted as a bloc, were against the motion.
MLAs RJ Simpson, Frederick (Sonny) Blake Jr., Kieron Testart, Shane Thompson, Kevin O’Reilly and Julie Green voted in favour of the motion.
The Union of Northern Workers (UNW) and government negotiators are holding mediation talks over the weekend. Territorial government workers and employees of the NWT Power Corporation will strike on Monday if they fail.
Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu abstained, signalling his reluctance to support the motion or vote against it in an impassioned speech to his colleagues.
“I’m in a quandary because for me I would say, I should vote for this motion because this is my last chance,” said Beaulieu.
Minister confident in negotiations
Finance Minister Robert C. McLeod said that voting against the motion did not indicate support for the strike.
“I have a lot of confidence in the ability of our negotiators and UNW negotiators,” he said. “I believe we would be able to come to an agreement.”
“What I don’t appreciate is the pressure being put on all 19 of us. The pressure that is put on all 19 members of this house,” he said.
The minister said he would make himself available all weekend to ensure good communication from the government as it heads into renewed talks with the union.
Following the vote, Green voiced her disappointment with the results and called it an inability to “show political leadership on this issue.”
“People send us emails and tell us that we are doing the right thing or the wrong thing … that is what this job is all about. In my mind, there is no such thing as undue political pressure,” she said.
Green: arbitration ‘preferable to a strike’
As a member of the CBC’s union for 16 years, Green saw strikes on “what felt like a regular schedule.”
“I remember a riot … where there was a brawl and police outside on horseback,” she said. “It was ugly.”
In the history of the territory, “Labour action polarized the community. People threw punches, ended friendships and moved away. Widows and mothers talked about their lost husbands and sons,” she said.
After the violence at Giant Mine in 1992, workers “didn’t recognize themselves as those angry volatile people,” she said.
“Strikes can be dangerous because stakes are high, tempers flare,” she said. Confrontation on the picket line is not just likely, it is inevitable.”
Constituents, including those who are relief workers have asked for an end to casual positions and concrete job security, said Green.
In the fall, negotiations ended after veteran mediator Vince Ready determined both parties were too far apart to come to an agreement. They agreed to meet again on Feb. 8 and 9.
“There are no guarantees that either side will get what they want but this is preferable to a strike,” said Green.
Testart troubled by document urging workers to cross the picket line
Tensions rose earlier this week as unionists confronted Premier Bob McLeod during his constituency meeting about a document that explained how unionized workers could cross the picket line and resume work.
A letter tabled today by Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart shows an acknowledgment and waiver for crossing a picket line. The document reads as follows:
“I ______, employee with the Department of _______, have requested and my employer, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT), has agreed to approve my request to cross the job action picket line of the Union of Northern Workers to work during job action. I confirm that I have been provided opportunity to contact the Union of Northern Workers to consider my decision and possible consequences of reporting to work during job action.”
The letter is not on GNWT letterhead and “does not meet the guidelines for GNWT documentation … it’s a very suspicious document,” said Testart in an interview.
In response to that document, the UNW increased strike pay from $177 per day to 60 per cent of a striking worker’s income, NNSL reported today.
Testart presented binding arbitration as the “only” course of action to address a looming strike.
“There will be anger, division, costs to local business,” said Testart.
Testart said the UNW gave him a failing grade and that he does, in fact, support infrastructure investments.
In an interview, he said he hoped that the motion would signal a desire on behalf of MLAs to avert a strike.
“Deciding to pass the buck is easy,” he said. “Making decisive action is harder.”
O’Reilly called arbitration an “off ramp” in the event that negotiations fail.
“The parties can set whatever conditions they want on that, including timelines, salary increment, you name it,” he said.
Of all issues in his time as MLA, the threat of a strike has been a worrying one.
“I will never forget the sights and sounds of sirens heading out to Giant Mine,” said O’Reilly. “The strike at CBC was also very painful. (27 years later) we appear to have learned so little from this infamous and tragic event in our history.”
O’Reilly said cabinet has never sought regular MLA’s input on a mandate. He called on the minister of finance to consider binding arbitration an option if negotiations fail this weekend.
“I have very little confidence in cabinets approach,” he said. “In the labour world, this is union busting and deliberately provocative.”
Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne was a member of the Con Mine union during the Giant Mine strike, he said.
“I do not need to be reminded of the impacts of a strike. I lived it,” he said.
He would not support the motion and called Vince Ready one of the “best mediators” in the country.
“This is not to say I oppose arbitration as a potential tool to reach a collective agreement,” he said.
Who is Vince Ready?
One of Canada’s most experienced negotiators, Ready has acted as mediator in more than 600 collective agreements. He has arbitrated and mediated more than 7,000 labour and commercial disputes in Canada, states his website.
Ready has mediated disputes in the forestry industry, heavy construction, grain industry, Canadian airline and railroad industries, pulp, mining and health care disputes in four provinces. Ready has also been involved in public sector disputes in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario, P.E.I. and Newfoundland.
In the 123 day long, 2001 transit strike in B.C., a report by Ready ended a dispute between B.C. Transit and its drivers.
In 1978, he was the conciliation officer for the federal government.