Nunavut government, striking power workers launch war of words

GN threatens to stop staff housing subsidies during strike, union alleges


About two dozen unionized QEC workers walk the picket line near Iqaluit's QEC office July 23. The strike entered its eighth day July 23, with no indication from either side that negotiations would resume any time soon. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)

About two dozen unionized QEC workers walk the picket line near Iqaluit’s QEC office July 23. The strike entered its eighth day July 23, with no indication from either side that negotiations would resume any time soon. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)

A war of words and numbers between the Qulliq Energy Corp. and its striking workers is now underway, with each side accusing the other of spreading false information.

The Government of Nunavut and its publicly-owned power utility, the QEC, issued a joint news release July 22 alleging the union is distorting the truth — it’s the first official communication from either organization since unionized QEC workers walked off the job at midnight July 16.

The striking workers are represented by the Nunavut Employees Union, a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

“The QEC and the GN are clarifying misinformation the NEU is providing to their members and the public,” the first line of the GN news release said.

But a PSAC vice president told Nunatsiaq News July 23 the GN news release is “propaganda.”

“I found the release was misleading, especially with regards to figures that they released,” said Jack Bourassa, PSAC’s regional executive vice president for the North.

And Bourassa said an email that Peter Tumilty, the QEC’s acting president, sent to unionized workers less than 12 hours before the start of the strike is “exceptionally troubling.”

Bourassa said Tumilty’s email threatened to cut housing subsidies for striking workers.

It also said the government would stop paying premiums on their supplementary health and dental insurance plans. (See copy of email embedded below.)

That “threat” to withdraw housing subsidies for striking workers not only puts their families at risk of homelessness, but also contradicts the guiding Inuit societal values the GN adopted when Nunavut was created in 1999, Bourassa said.

“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 he thinks the QEC has not followed through on that threat because the housing subsidy agreement is between the QEC and the Nunavut Housing Corp. and not made directly with NEU members.

Tumilty’s office declined interview requests on July 16 and July 20, and did not respond to a July 23 interview request before press time this week.

Meanwhile, a July 22 GN news release disputes two points raised by QEC workers in a July 16 Nunatsiaq News story.

Those two points relate to the increasing cost of living in Nunavut and to the increased salaries of MLAs, compared with the salary increase they’re offering QEC employees.

Workers walking the picket line in front of QEC’s Iqaluit office July 16 said the strike is about getting fair wage increases that match the increasing cost of living in Nunavut.

And while MLAs recently received a three per cent salary increase, the QEC is offering unionized workers salary increases of 2, 1, 1 and 2 per cent over the next four years, workers said.

But the government news release points out that, under the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act, salary increases for Nunavut MLAs are tied to salary increases set out in the collective agreement between the Government of Nunavut and the NEU.

“From 2011 to 2013, MLAs received a 6.5 per cent increase to their salaries… During the same time period, QEC employees also received a 6.5 per cent increase to their salaries,” the release says.

It’s a point that Bourassa concedes may be correct, though he said he hasn’t verified it yet.

But on the issue of increased cost of living in Nunavut, the numbers given in the GN release are wrong, Bourassa said.

“The cost of living increase in Nunavut is averaging about 1 per cent each year,” the release said.

In response, Bourassa pointed out that Nunavut’s Consumer Price Index, measured by comparing the cost of a basket of similar grocery goods at select locations over time, shows that between June 2014 and June 2015, the cost of grocery bills rose by 1.9 per cent.

“This is on their own website, so they’re not even checking their own information,” Bourassa said.

And Nunavut’s CPI is only measured in Iqaluit, not in other communities where the cost of living is even greater, Bourassa added.

“There are QEC members who live all over the territory, so that figure is very misleading.”

The joint news release from the QEC and the GN says services will continue during the strike.

“QEC remains open and willing to meet with the union in an effort to resolve this dispute,” the release says.

“That’s just propaganda on their part,” Bourassa said in response.

“Before we went on strike, we were asking them to come back to the table to see if we could do something further about the salary increases. And as soon as we got there, they said, ‘no’, right away. They weren’t even prepared to negotiate.”

QEC employees have asked for a three-year contract with salary increases of 2, 2.1 and 2.25 per cent over that time.

PSAC is a national union representing public sector employees, with 17 local components, including the NEU, Bourassa explained.

Negotiations are entirely directed by local components, Bourassa said.

Email from QEC short-term president Peter Tumilty to union members

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