Replace right to strike with binding arbitration


The fledgling government of Nunavut is in the midst of negotiating its most important collective agreements: a new deal with the 1100 or so territorial employees represented by the Nunavut Employees Union, and another new deal with the 600 or so teachers represented by the Federation of Nunavut Teachers.

These talks are not going well.

Nunavut teachers have already rejected a tentative new deal announced Nov. 25 last year. The agreement would have given teachers an 8.5 per cent increase spread out over three years, but did not reinstate the vacation travel assistance system that the GNWT unilaterally removed in 1995. The FNT’s executive first recommended that members says yes, but then changed their minds in the middle of the ratification process and recommended that members reject the deal.

The FNT’s president claims that this is in reaction to an announcement by Health Minister Ed Picco on November 13 that provided $1.26 million worth of pay raises to Nunavut’s nurses and social workers. General duty nurses, community health nurses, and social workers all recieved 8 per cent pay increases under Picco’s plan, which was implemented outside of the collective bargaining process as part of a long-awaited recruitment and retention plan aimed at alleviating Nunavut’s desperate shortage of nurses and social workers.

This explanation, however, stretches credulity. The teachers’ union was recommending acceptance of the tentative agreement at least two to three weeks after they ought to have known about Picco’s announcement. In any event, 68 per cent of Nunavut teachers voted last Friday to reject their tentative agreement anyway, probably because it does little to address overcrowded classrooms and other poor working conditions, and perhaps also because of the VTA issue.

Nunavut teachers are not yet in a legal position to strike, but they will be after working out an essential services agreement with the government and going through a mediation process required by the Public Service Act. A teachers’ strike, however, is the last thing that Nunavut needs to cope with right now.

As for the NEU, its negotiations are still at an earlier stage, with the latest bargaining session taking place this week in Iqaluit. However, they’ve already been marred by unnecessary conflict. Just last week, the NEU’s president complained bitterly that the Nunavut government exceeded its authority by unilaterally announcing a 15 per cent increase in northern allowances.

The northern allowance system was introduced in 1995-96 to replace VTAs and other subsidies. This move, which strengthens the northern allowance system, is a clear signal — as if any were still needed — that the Nunavut government is determined not to reinstate the vacation travel assistance benefit.

Right now we have no way of knowing whether members of the Nunavut government’s unions will end up going on strike.

But it’s absurd that this should even be a theoretical possibility in a territory as interdependent and closely-knit as Nunavut. The Nunavut legislative assembly should amend Nunavut’s Public Service Act to remove the right to strike for Nunavut government workers. For Nunavut public servants, the “right to strike” effectively means the right to go on strike against oneself.

Instead, unsettled contract disputes between the Nunavut government and its unions should be resolved through some form of compulsory binding arbitration, in which a third party acceptable to both sides is empowered to impose an agreement.

In the private sector, strikes may occasionally be useful as a tool of last resort. But in Nunavut’s public sector, the right to strike is a divisive, potentially destructive anachronism. The Public Service Act should be amended to restore the arbitration provisions that were in force before 1995.

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