Alianaittuq! It’s over…

Iqaluit’s 91-day labour war ends.



IQALUIT — City workers are off the picket line and back on the job.

The City of Iqaluit agreed to raise the signing bonus for its unionized workers by $1,175, increasing it from $1,100 to $2,275. That’s the only change from a mediated deal that the union rejected in early June.

Workers had been off the job since the city locked them out April 17.

The new deal runs from July 1, 1999 to June 30, 2003. It provides the first wage increases for unionized city workers since 1993.

The nearly 80 city employees streamed back to work Tuesday to meet with management and to hear what must be done to get the city back on track.

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Rob Smith, the manager of the swimming pool, said he’s excited to get back to work and into a routine, but he feels the two sides could have struck a deal sooner.

“I think the deal, for what it was, could have been signed off 11 weeks ago, but other than that I’m happy to be back,” he said as he rushed up the front steps of city hall Tuesday morning.

Rick Butler, the city’s chief administrative officer, says the offer that the city made to the union in May was worth about $1.8 million in additional payroll costs.

When federal mediator Elizabeth MacPherson arrived in June, she bumped that deal up to $2.2 million, but the union rejected her recommendation. The city then lifted its lockout, but the union declared a strike.

Bonus the only change

Last weekend, MacPherson returned to Iqaluit to assist in a new round of talks. The city then agreed to a one-time only payment of $190,000 to increase the value of its signing bonus, bringing the package to about $2.3 million in increased wages and benefits over the four years of the agreement.

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It constitutes a 21-per-cent increase in payroll from the previous contract over four years, plus the signing bonus.

City workers have been without a contract since 1999.

“The ongoing number, which will be most difficult for the city … is an additional $673,000 to the budget,” Butler said. “Every year they have to add that much because of the classification and cost-of-living increases. That’s where (the city will) be struggling.”

Kevin Okpik, a heavy equipment mechanic, said he’s pleased to be back at work, even though the union didn’t get everything it sought. He says he and his colleagues will be busy catching up on maintenance of the city’s vehicles.

Standing on the steps of city hall Tuesday, he said he’s looking forward to hearing what management has to say, but he predicted that morale will be low for a while.

“So far, with our last two hours at work, we’ve been giving the silent treatment to some scabs,” he said, but he thinks this will eventually come to an end.

“We all work for the same employer, the municipality, and we’re just going to have to get along together sooner or later,” Okpik said.

Mayor John Matthews said he’s aware that there will be many issues to deal with after the long and sometimes heated dispute.

“We’re in a healing process, and we’re looking into getting counselling for those employees who do require it because of stress that may evolve in the workplace,” he said.

“It’s had an incredible impact. The community was not anticipating anything like this and has not experienced anything in the past so divisive, so it’s had a significant impact and only time will tell how significant it will be to the municipality.”

Jean-Francois Des Lauriers, the northern executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says he’s glad city employees are going back to work.

“They’ve stuck together for a long time and they got a pretty good agreement,” he said.

“Obviously they felt there was sufficient improvement after being on the line for over three months. It was a long haul and it was felt that because it had been so long it was felt that it was about as far as they wanted to go this time around.”

Now comes the task of cleaning up a 13-week-long mess.

The city’s director of engineering and public works, Matthew Hough, said garbage pick-up is planned for Monday.

“This week the goal is to clean up the mess at the dump and the way we’re going to do that is, with the Department of Health’s help, we’re going to burn off the garbage as quickly as we can and as safely as we can.”

Hough said the city hopes to have the extra refuse burned within a week.

Water and sewer truck drivers will return to a normal routine, meaning everyone on trucked services will get full deliveries of water.

The swimming pool will stay closed for about three weeks for clean-up and renovations.

In retrospect, Matthews said he has learned how to cope with stress during the dispute, and how to prevent something like this from happening again.

“We went to the table without really having a good understanding of what position we were in. We came from two completely different worlds and that shouldn’t happen in an organization. We should have had regular meetings to try and ascertain where each side is standing.”

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