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Power corp. employees voting on issue, as collective bargaining for three different unionized groups drags on

A strike vote is underway among NWT Power Corp. employees represented by the Union of Northern Workers, as negotiations for a new collective agreement remains deadlocked nearly three years after the last agreement expired.

UNW president Todd Parsons, left, and first vice-president Gayla Thunstrom are seen at a GNWT bargaining update meeting in July.
photo courtesy of UNW

“The membership are frustrated with the offer the employer has on the table,” said UNW president Todd Parsons, who added NTPC did not budge on its proposal at the latest bargaining meetings in September. “We’re conducting a strike vote to see if our members want to fight for what we have on the table on their behalf.”

The UNW represents 180 employees at the power corp., approximately 50 of whom work in Yellowknife, according to Parsons.

The union is asking NTPC for a three-year collective agreement that includes a 3.5 per cent wage increase for 2015, followed by three per cent increases in each of the following two years.

NTPC, on the other hand, is proposing a four-year collective agreement with no wage increase for its employees in the first two years, followed by one per cent wage increases in both the third and fourth years.

With the power corp. having rejected the UNW’s latest offer last month, according to a UNW bargaining update addressed to members, the union is now asking a mediator to step in.

Workers in Inuvik and Hay River have already voted on whether or not they want to strike. Yellowknife workers will likely vote in early November, according to the UNW. The final results are expected in November, said Parsons.

NTPC declined to speak to Yellowknifer.

However, in an Oct. 2 media release, NTPC president Jay Grewal stated NTPC “remains committed” to reaching a collective agreement with the UNW. The notice alludes to financial challenges, stating there is a need for balance between investing in employees and fiscal responsibility.

Meanwhile, bargaining for nearly 4,000 GNWT workers and approximately 200 workers with the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority continue to drag on as well.

Collective agreements for both groups expired March 31, 2016.

The UNW has asked for a three-year agreement with a three per cent wage increase annually for GNWT workers, while the GNWT maintained its proposal for increases of one per cent in both the third and fourth year of a four-year agreement at the latest meetings in September.

Negotiations will continue on January 30- February 1.

The GNWT is hopeful progress can be made and remains committed to reaching an agreement through the collective bargaining process,” said GNWT spokesperson Todd Sasaki via email

Some employees more equal than others?

Amidst talks of fiscal challenges, workers are expressing frustration that some people in the public service automatically receive cost of living adjustments to their salaries every year.

A recent announcement that the two-year freeze on MLAs’ salaries is set to end next spring has “dominated” discussions at strike vote meetings in Hay River and Inuvik, according to Parsons.

But Kieron Testart, the MLA for Kam Lake, stressed that a decision about whether or not that freeze could continue after next spring hasn’t been made yet, although he said the issue could be revisited when the budget is tabled next year.

The freeze could be extended if members of the assembly enacted new legislation.

Testart said he believes in “fairness” and investing in the public service, “but it needs to be made clear that the assembly has not made a decision on the pay freeze,” he said.

Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu told Yellowknifer last week that regular members had not yet discussed the salary freeze, given other pressing items happening at the legislative assembly, such as the Oct. 5 midterm review.

But it’s possible the issue could come up on the agenda for discussion when the third session of the 18th assembly begins Oct. 17, he said.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly declined to comment, stating he didn’t have anything more to add to the discussion.

However, Parsons said the issue is about more than just a wage freeze coming to an end.

“They’re (MLAs) provided with cost of living increases that are tied to the consumer price index,” said Parsons. “And additionally in that law they review their salaries every few years. That’s not something we do as a public service. We go through the collective bargaining process.”

If the public service was protected in the same way as MLAs, he said, “we’d probably be well on our way to reaching agreement at our three bargaining units.”