Nunavut DM: lawyers ponder cuts to strikers’ housing subsidies
“It may or may not be a benefit the corporation can elect not to cover”
Lawyers in Nunavut’s finance department are looking into whether the territorial government can legally withdraw housing subsidies paid to the Qulliq Energy Corp.’s striking workers, the Government of Nunavut’s deputy minister of finance said July 27.
And if the GN gets the legal go-ahead, Chris D’Arcy told Nunatsiaq News, the withdrawal of housing subsidies may be applied retroactively to July 16, when unionized QEC workers across Nunavut walked off the job.
“Depending on how the agreement on housing subsidy between QEC and its members is structured, it may or may not be a benefit the corporation can elect not to cover,” D’Arcy said from a boardroom in Iqaluit’s Parnaivik Building.
D’Arcy added that it’s “possible” the withdrawal would be applied retroactively, “but I’m not saying it’s likely at this point in time because we simply don’t know how that’s going to turn out.”
D’Arcy responded July 27 to an email that QEC’s interim president Peter Tumilty sent to striking workers July 15.
In that letter, obtained by Nunatsiaq News, Tumilty told members of the Nunavut Employees Union that once the strike began, the QEC would “no longer be providing striking employees with housing/rental subsidies.”
Tumilty’s letter also said the power utility would stop “making premium or other payments on behalf of striking employees for any insurance, health and dental plans.”
D’Arcy said withdrawing payment of health insurance premiums from striking workers is “standard practice,” but it appears Tumilty issued his letter without knowing if the QEC had the legal right to withdraw housing subsidies.
Jack Bourassa, an executive vice president with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, told Nunatsiaq News July 23 that Tumilty’s letter amounted to a threat.
“It’s like holding a gun to the families — not just to the strikers, but putting the strikers’ families on notice that they too would be suffering,” Bourassa said.
But D’Arcy said the letter was intended to provide striking workers with information and fair warning.
“It was more informational than it was a bullying, hard-nosed kind of attitude, in my view,” D’Arcy said.
QEC employees will still get medical travel benefits during the strike, including emergency medevacs, the deputy minister said.
And the Nunavut Housing Corp. has nothing to do with the QEC’s agreement to subsidize employee housing, D’Arcy added, as Bourassa had said July 23.
“[The] QEC leases directly from landlords and then charges their employees rent appropriately,” said D’Arcy.
According to GN finance department data, D’Arcy said the QEC currently provides “very high subsidies” on 86 leased units and 21 owned units for its employees.
The base rent of those units is subsidized, on average, by between 60 and 70 per cent, D’Arcy said.
Right now, QEC strikers get $141 in strike pay from PSAC for each day on the picket line, with a “day” defined as four hours, an NEU official said last week. The NEU tops that up with another $50 a day.
The deputy minister said he is also “concerned” about Bourassa’s numbers for living costs in Nunavut — a central issue in the labour dispute.
Bourassa told Nunatsiaq News that the Consumer Price Index for Iqaluit, which is a tool used by number-crunchers to measure the cost of living in Canada, rose 2 per cent in June 2015, as compared to June 2014.
But D’Arcy pointed out that figure only compares two months, one year apart.
In the five-year span between 2009 and 2014, the CPI increased an average of one per cent per year, D’Arcy said, citing Statistics Canada.
And while the cost of living in communities outside of Iqaluit is considerably higher, the Northern Allowance payment adjusts for that by subsidizing the salaries of workers outside Iqaluit at a higher rate, D’Arcy said.
“We remain confident that we’re offering a good deal.”
That deal is a four-year contract proposal with salary increases of 2, 1, 1 and 2 per cent in each respective year.
The NEU is asking for a three-year contract with salary increases of 2, 2.1 and 2.25 per cent over each of those three years.
But D’Arcy said there are no plans to go back to the bargaining table with the union in the near future.
The GN will, however, sit down with the same union in September for contract negotiations for all other GN employees, who have been without a contract since September 2014, D’Arcy said.
And while those negotiations are separate and distinct from the current labour dispute with QEC workers, all GN workers face the same future, he added.
“Everybody is looking at the same economic forecast, everyone is looking at the same future… but the one negotiation doesn’t necessarily influence the other.”
Canada’s economy recorded negative growth rates in its last two quarters, D’Arcy said, leading the Bank of Canada to decrease its interest rate twice this year.
“In light of the current economic times, and what the real cost is to continue to work here, I think more and more people need to look at the longer picture.”