GN employee union wants collective bargaining to be ‘central issue’ of territorial election
Union president Bill Fennell calls slow pace of negotiations ‘ridiculous’
The Nunavut Employees Union wants its long-running negotiations for a new collective agreement to be a big issue this territorial election.
This is what union president Bill Fennell is urging in an Oct. 1 letter to union members and Nunavut politicians.
The NEU represents all Government of Nunavut employees. As Fennell writes, “nearly one-eighth of Nunavut is an NEU member.”
Its last collective agreement – which determines things like pay, benefits and leave – expired three years ago.
“This is ridiculous,” Fennell said in an interview on Sept. 21. “Three years ago [the GN] said they wanted to get this done quickly.”
On top of raised pay to adjust for inflation and renegotiated benefits, Fennell said employees want things like longer maternity and paternity leave, like federal government workers have negotiated.
Another request is having leave available for members experiencing domestic violence.
“The government doesn’t want to agree to that, which is strange,” said Fennell.
The dispute started in 2019, when the union sued the GN, alleging the government bargained in bad faith when it scaled back how much it would increase the Nunavut northern allowance benefit. The government has said that it had offered a larger amount in error.
In his letter, Fennell said the GN “clawed back” nearly half the original offer on the northern allowance and offered an amount “well below” the rate of inflation.
He said the union was in a position to strike at the time, but decided not to amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our members, despite having received no pay increases, continued to work tirelessly on behalf of the people of Nunavut during this time of crisis,” he wrote.
Both the union and the government fault the other side for holding up negotiations.
When John Main, the MLA for Arviat North-Whale Cove, asked David Akeeagok, the minister for human resources, about the negotiations in the legislature on Sept. 14, Akeeagok encouraged the union to “get back to the table.”
But, in the interview on Sept. 21, Fennell said the union is waiting on the GN.
His letter also states the union tried to resolve matters in a different way during the pandemic’s peak in Nunavut by offering to go to arbitration, but the government refused.
In arbitration, an impartial third party makes a final decision, aiming to find the middle ground between both groups.
“It was a risk to make such an offer because there is no guarantee that an arbitrator will side with the union,” Fennell writes. “Still, we tried.”
In the legislative assembly on Sept. 14, Main asked Akeeagok why the GN didn’t want to go this route.
Akeeagok said the department prefers to use traditional negotiations.
“[Arbitration] basically means you’re being told what to do, is not the right way,” he said. “It does not work for both parties.”
Fennell’s letter says the union is now “developing mobilization plans” to strike. The union would need to hold another vote before it’s in a legal position to strike.
Fennell said even if employees don’t want to go on strike, being prepared for it might be the best way to avoid picketing.
“Every time we’ve had to do a strike vote — which is just about every time we get a new collective agreement — [I say] the best way to avoid a strike is to give us a strong strike mandate.”