Iqaluit Housing Authority (IHA) workers breathed a sigh of relief on Aug. 1, when a 136-day labour dispute with their employer finally came to end.

The 13 striking IHA staff, who are members of the Nunavut Employees Union (NEU), walked off the job on March 17, and will finally return to their positions on Aug. 3.

“They feel like they survived a battle, and they knew their worth, and they’re very happy with the results,” said NEU president Jason Rochon. “They’re looking forward to getting back to the workplace.

“We’re talking about young, local workers. They’re our future, and I’m really happy that they’re happy with the deal.”

The NEU’s labour dispute with IHA was relatively high-profile, in large part because it lasted so long.

Rochon said IHA employees were prepared for a drawn-out fight, but were disappointed nonetheless by the slow pace of negotiations.

“NEU has ratified three other deals in less than the last two months, and they were all much easier,” he said. “Usually a strike doesn’t last this long.

“We knew the strike could be over three days after we were on the picket line or it could be a couple months. It’s unfortunate that it went this long, but of course we held the line and never gave up.”

There were several key developments in the IHA labour dispute over the last few weeks, most notably a face-to-face meeting in Ottawa on July 21, and a substantial shuffling of the IHA board of directors on July 28.

NEU called the Ottawa meeting a disappointment, but were quick to acknowledge the director changes as a positive sign.

Those changes turned out to be an important turning point in resolving the dispute, according to Rochon.

“The tone on Monday [July 31], and leading up to Monday, we were looking forward to having real conversations,” he said of the first meeting with the new board, which he called “the first real negotiations” of the 136-day saga.

“We were looking forward to a little bit of a change and we did see that change,” he added. “It’s reflected in the fact that we got the results we were asking for.”

The IHA workers’ new agreement includes “fair wage increases,” according to a news release — those pay bumps are important to counterbalance the high cost of living in Nunavut.

“The reality is the cost of living in Nunavut is very expensive,” Rochon said. “We need to make sure that people have an opportunity to keep up. The days of just surviving are over. People need to be able to go to work and thrive.”

The dispute wasn’t just about money, though.

IHA workers ultimately won many other improvements, including the addition of National Truth and Reconciliation Day as a paid holiday, 10 days of family violence leave (five paid and five unpaid) and one additional week of paid maternity leave allowance.

They are also now entitled to four days off for traditional Inuit cultural pursuits, such as hunting and fishing—two paid and two unpaid.

“That’s an extra four opportunities for our members to be able to go out and provide for their families and connect with their culture,” Rochon said.

As IHA employees return to the workplace, Rochon believes they have set an important precedent for future labour disputes in Nunavut and broader Canada.

“People are using their voices more and more, every day,” he said. “People are going to see these 13 young workers using their voices and knowing their worth, and it’s going to send the right message: that the days of pushing people around are over.”

Two days after the the IHA’s new deal was ratified, Lorne Kusugak, minister responsible for the Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC), issued a statement on the resolution of the dispute.

“We are pleased to see that the unionized workers will return to work,” Kusugak said. “NHC recognizes the challenges and pressures over the past months relative to the labour dispute between the IHA and the NEU. I want to thank all those involved in the bargaining teams for achieving a fair agreement this past Monday.”

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