Pickets begin in Yellowknife after town mediation, union fails

Yellowknife city workers outside City Hall on Wednesday morning.  Temperatures hovered around -30C. (Hilary Bird/CBC - photo credit)

Yellowknife city workers outside City Hall on Wednesday morning. Temperatures hovered around -30C. (Hilary Bird/CBC – photo credit)

City workers in Yellowknife have walked off the job and the picket line began at 8am, with workers carrying colorful flags and placards outside City Hall demanding a better wage offer from the city.

Workers who spoke to CBC said they plan to stay out until that happens.

“I feel good. Look at the guys here – we’re freezing for a reason,” said Daryl Snow, who works at the multiplex.

It was about -29 C on Wednesday morning when the pickets began. Geraldine Penney, who was part of the negotiating team, said she was happy to see vehicles drive by and honk their horns in support.

“I know it’s cold outside, but my heart is warm,” she said.

“I’ll be here every day until it’s over and hopefully that won’t be very long.”

Wednesday’s action is both a strike and lockout, according to Lorraine Rousseau, executive vice president of PSAC North, the northern branch of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. The workers are out of work and on strike outside City Hall, but the city has also suspended its services. That means if the strike ends, workers won’t be able to return to their jobs until the city ends the lockout.

Rousseau said Yellowknifers could expect city employees to picket “in various locations” beginning Wednesday morning.

“They will see the signage and hear us,” she said.

Hilary Vogel/CBC

Hilary Vogel/CBC

Another round of talks this week between the city and the union that represents most of its workers failed to reach an agreement, even with the help of a federally appointed mediator.

In a negotiation update on Tuesday, PSAC said the city would not budge on wages, among other issues, and that they would “officially be on strike/lockout at midnight tonight.”

The city said the union left the negotiating table with more than 13 hours to reach an agreement.

On Wednesday morning, City Manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said the city had a counter offer, but that she was not given an opportunity to discuss it with the union before negotiations broke down.

She said the city’s wage offer is “in the ballpark” that the union has been asking for. The city previously offered a 2 percent wage increase, while the union has said it wants more as Yellowknife’s inflation rate is about 7 percent.

“It’s been a tough few days leading up to the strike action, which was carried out first thing this morning,” Bassi-Kellett said.

“I am very sad that it has come to this, but I firmly believe that we can still find a way forward.”

Rousseau said the city gave the union “no choice” but to end negotiations on Tuesday. She said the union had come up with a wage proposal, but the city was “not ready to talk about it and at that point we were forced to end the discussion.”

“The employer was not willing to talk about fair wages,” she added.

Councilors speak

Mayor Rebecca Alty said Tuesday she was “shocked and disappointed” by the union’s message.

She said the union walked out of the talks “without giving the city an opportunity to be creative and work with the union to find a solution.”

The strike comes after tensions between the union and the city escalated over the weekend. The union legally announced it could strike on Wednesday, and the city responded with its own statement that it would lock out workers at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning before the strike could go ahead. That was before the union announced the midnight strike.

On Tuesday, the Union of Northern Workers, a component of PSAC, released a letter to councilors urging them not to exceed picket lines.

The union said this showed “an absolute disrespect for their workers”.

She also released a second letter addressed to three councilors who are full-time union members, reminding them of their obligations during the strike.

In response, the three councilors – Couns. Ben Hendriksen, Steve Payne and Rob Warburton later signed a joint e-mail statement stating that they would fulfill their duties as council members and that they viewed the UNW’s letter as an intimidation tactic.

“In our role as councilors, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the city and would not be able to uphold that responsibility while adhering to all of the demands that the Union set out in its communication,” the statement said, in part.

“As the city’s publicly elected officials, it would be a breach of our elected duties to follow this course of action.”

Rousseau said on Wednesday that the union sent the letter “out of respect” for those council members so that they would not question their commitments.

A council meeting is scheduled for Monday. Several council members have told CBC that they intend to continue in their duties as elected officials.

The industrial action affects a union made up of about 205 city workers.


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