On Labour Day, Nunavut’s union leaders celebrate and worry
"What I see unions doing is protecting the rights of the average person"
At the Iqaluit Labour Day picnic in Sylvia Grinnell territorial park, Geoff Ryan steps away from the flames shooting off the grill and sits down.
His chef’s apron proudly displays his “Stop Harper” and pro-union badges.
Taking a breather from cooking hotdogs and hamburgers for the dozens of people who showed up for the free Sept. 2 Labour Day lunch, Ryan, Nunavut vice-president of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour, which represents about 9,200 workers in 12 different unions, takes a second to explain why he’s pro-union.
“I’ve been involved in unions almost 10 years now,” Ryan said.
“My parents were both involved in unions. And, really, what I see unions doing is protecting the rights of the average person, and that’s why I’m passionate about it.”
Although he said he’s also proud of the big turnout for the lunch, Ryan, a New Democratic Party supporter, said he’s worried about the state of unions in Canada because there’s been “a lot of regression” under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Tory government.
“There’s been a lot of bills entered into government by the Conservative government that are taking away union rights,” Ryan said.
“This attack on unions by the government is actually an attack on working families. They don’t want to see people getting decent wages it seems.
“It seems as if they don’t want unions to represent people when they’re treated unfairly in the work place. They’ve cut inspectors for public buildings in terms of fire protection and whatnot, so they don’t want them to be safe at work either.”
Bill Fennell, vice-president of the Nunavut Employees Union, echoes Ryan’s anti-Harper sentiments.
Fennell said he’s concerned about Bill C-377 — a federal bill that would give the government more power to look into unions’ financial accounts, and would publicize donations and union business transactions greater than $5,000.
“Accountability and transparency is a good thing. But the only reason they’re doing it is to see what political involvement the unions are in,” Fennell said.
Fennell said he’s worried that Canada’s workforce might eventually start to look like that in the United States.
“[The workers in the U.S.] have no benefits. They have to work weekends. And on-the-job deaths are three-times higher. That’s not what the Canadian people want,” he said.
Fennell, who is now preparing for negotiations with the Government of Nunavut and Quilliq Energy Corp. for new collective agreements, said negotiations would get underway after Nunavut’s territorial election this fall.
The current GN collective agreement is set to expire Sept. 30, 2014. QEC’s agreement is set to expire at the end of December 2013.
But Fennell said he’s hopeful that a new government might mean a change in its current relationship with unions.
“This past government was a little different. We didn’t know who was in charge,” Fennell said.
“Under previous governments, we knew the premier was the go-to-guy. Not this time. Last time around, even the bargaining team couldn’t tell us who was in charge,” he said.
“Hopefully, we’ll see a lot of changes,” Fennell said, adding only “a few” members of the legislature have met with the union since the last territorial election.