On eve of budget, GN-union wage talks head nowhere
Union could be in legal strike position by March 14
With territorial budget day fast approaching, the Government of Nunavut’s unionized workers took to the sidewalks and driveways around the Nunavut legislative building Feb. 20 to complain their wage-benefit talks, now two years old, are heading nowhere.
“Whether you’re a nurse, whether you work in a school, whether you work in one of the offices around here, you provide valuable public services and you deserve to be paid a fair wage,” said Geoff Ryan, Nunavut vice-president of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour, which represents about 9,200 workers in 12 different unions.
Ryan, who also serves as an official with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the NEU’s parent organization, scoffed at the Nunavut government’s opening wage offer in 2010: no wage increases over four years.
“The government is telling you that you aren’t even deserving of the wage you’re getting right now. They want you guys to have a lower standard of living than you have already enjoyed,” Ryan told union members gathered Feb. 20 in the parking lot behind the legislature.
This past fall, 85 per cent of NEU members who cast ballots voted in favour of strike action, if necessary.
That means if mediation talks, which began Feb. 17 in Iqaluit, fail to break the impasse, then GN workers could find themselves in a legal strike position by March 14.
But that’s only if they reach an agreement with their employer on the provision of essential services during a strike or lockout.
Talks on the last collective agreement between the GN and the Nunavut Employees Union began in March 2010, and the deal expired in September 2010.
On money, the two sides haven’t moved much from positions they exchanged in April 2011.
The GN upped its initial zero wage offer to a proposal that would offer workers no wage increase in the first year of a new contract and one per cent wage hikes in each of three following years.
The union wants five per cent wage hikes in each year of a three-year deal, saying GN workers need that much to keep up with the cost of living.
Ryan, quoting from a recent Nunavut inflation rate figure of 2.5 per cent, said the GN’s wage offers amount to wage cuts for their workers, given the loss of buying power produced by a rising cost of living.
“The offer that you guys originally got from the government is zero, zero, zero and zero. How pathetic,” Ryan said.
Ryan then jerked his thumb in the direction of the legislative building.
“The guys in this place here, they’re not getting zero, zero, zero. They’re flying around all over the place. They’re spending money. Take a look in the windows and see how many days they have catering up there… and they expect you to get by with nothing?”
Throughout the noon-hour picket and rally, NEU members marched in front of the legislative building, holding picket signs, distributing leaflets and chanting slogans such as, “Northern allowance is broke. GN offer is a joke.”
Across the street, at the Nova Inn, negotiators from the two sides sat all weekend with mediator Vince Ready, who was brought in last summer to help broker a deal.
As of Feb. 21, neither side was reporting any progress at the bargaining table.
Also on the weekend, the NEU and PSAC held workshops for union members who flew into Iqaluit from around Nunavut to attend learning sessions on strike preparation and other subjects.
Another participant was Julie Docherty, executive vice president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the NEU’s parent organization, in Canada’s North.
Docherty was last year elected to succeed veteran labour activist Jean-François Des Lauriers of Whitehorse.
“We live here in the North. We deserve a fair and decent collective agreement and for this employer to come to you and offer you zero, one, one and one is unacceptable and appalling,” Docherty said.
Docherty read messages of support from John Gordon, PSAC’s national president, and from the Canadian Labour Congress.
In addition to their big disagreement on wages, the NEU and the GN are also wrangling over a long list of other issues, including:
• northern allowance payments;
• vacation travel assistance, which the union wants reinistated;
• concessions that the government is seeking in the recruitment and retention payments made to nurses;
• a GN proposal to re-classify casual workers as “relief” workers, which the union says could lead to a loss of rights and benefits for casual employees; and,
• the creation of a “social justice fund,” which the union is demanding.