Hated staff housing scheme a sore point in wage talks

'Enough is enough,' GN union says


Teeth chattering, shoulders hunched against the cold, about 45 Nunavut government employees rallied this past Monday in front of the legislative building in Iqaluit to show their opposition to the Government of Nunavut's latest wage offer.

"Enough is enough. They've been stringing us along since August of 2006," said Jean-François Des Lauriers, the Public Service Alliance of Canada's northern vice-president.

The GN's unionized workers saw their last wage-benefit deal expire in October 2006. Talks dragged on for more than a year before the GN gave the union its first wage bid, on Dec. 6. 2007.

In it, the GN offers a series of 1.5 per cent wage increases that would click in every six months between April 1, 2008 and April 1, 2010, with a 1 per cent increase due on the date a new deal is signed.

The employer also offers new incentives aimed at keeping its revolving-door employees from chucking their jobs and seeking work elsewhere: continuous service bonuses that range up to $3,000 a year after 21 years of service.

And for nurses, who rank among the government's most dissatisfied workers, the GN offers a special set of continuous service bonuses and other payments.

But union members say the territorial government's opening bid does little to help its employees cope with Nunavut's brutal cost of living, especially the rising costs of fuel, electricity and food.

And then there's the biggest grievance: the GN's hated staff housing rent policy. Under it, employees have seen dramatic rent increases each year since January of 2006, a process that won't stop until 2010.

"Back in December last year some of them threatened to walk out, some of them threatened to quit their jobs, especially in the nursing and health care sector. There is a tremendous amount of frustration," Des Lauriers said.

And he said that this now threatens the quality of public services.

"Who's going to pay at the end of the day? It will be the citizens of Nunavut, because they won't have the services that they need," Des Lauriers said.

At the beginning of this month, the GN raised its staff housing rents by 20 per cent in Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay.

"The cost of living is going up, the cost of housing is going up. We'll be forced to leave," said one GN employee who did not want to identify herself.

In response to all that, the union wants wage increases totalling 18 per cent over a two-year period dating back to Oct. 1, 2006

Under the union's proposal, those wage increases would click in step-by-step, dating back to the expiry of the last collective agreement: 6 per cent as of Oct. 1, 2006, 6 per cent as of Oct. 1, 2007, and 6 per cent as of Oct. 1, 2008.

And to combat the effect of jacked-up staff housing rents, the union wants the GN to pay a housing allowance of $1,000 a month.

They also want the restoration of a separate vacation travel benefit, and beefed-up northern allowance payments similar to those paid to federal workers.

With such a wide gap separating the two positions,

Des Lauriers said this week's bargaining session in Iqaluit, which started Jan. 21, may prove to be "decisive."

But he suggested it's much too early to say if the unresolved issues between the GN and PSAC would provoke a strike or other forms of job action.

"We'll see what happens. The process before we can take job action is predicated on the legislation," Des Lauriers said.

Doug Workman, the president of the Nunavut Employees Union, the PSAC component that represents GN workers, said he thinks recent cabinet changes may offer the union a glimmer of hope.

He said the union did not enjoy a good relationship with David Simailak, who quit the cabinet last month, but gets along better with Louis Tapardjuk, who now holds the finance and human resource portfolios.

"With Mr. Tapardjuk back in as finance minister and HR minister, maybe we'll get some respect, the respect we need," Workman, megaphone in hand, told the assembled union members.

Hunter Tootoo, the MLA for Iqaluit Centre, was the only elected official to attend the rally.

Tootoo said the recent round of staff housing rent increases is driving more people out of Nunavut's public service. He said he was there to "show support for our employees, the frustrations that they're going through in trying to do their jobs."

"I've always said they should have a fair deal and that to recruit and retain people and have a good work force, in any organization, its strength is its people," Tootoo said.

Cheryl Young, head of local 3, the nursing unit within the NEU, said "nothing has changed" as a result of the GN's wage offer last December, which she says isn't enough to keep nurses from fleeing Nunavut's crumbling health care system.

"If the government doesn't start doing something quickly, we're going to start losing more nurses," Young said.

About 2,900 employees are affected by the collective agreement, which covers workers at most GN departments, agencies and Crown corporations.

Employees of the Qulliq Energy Corp. are covered by a separate agreement, which expired Dec. 31, 2007. The union is still preparing its negotiating position for those collective agreement talks.

For detailed information, consult www.neu.ca.

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