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Leader of union representing one in eight Nunavut residents wants stalled negotiations with GN to be election issue

The Nunavut Employees Union (NEU) is urging its members to pressure MLA candidates for a new collective agreement as the last one expired three years ago as of Sept. 30.
”They’re trying to drive a wedge between the members. We can’t allow it,” Nunavut Employees Union president Bill Fennell says of the GN’s negotiating tactics on Northern allowance, which he alleges would be unfairly distributed under the territorial government’s last proposal. Photo courtesy of the NEU

The Nunavut Employees Union (NEU) is urging its members to pressure MLA candidates for a new collective agreement as the last one expired three years ago as of Sept. 30.

The next step after that will be a strike vote, union president Bill Fennell said.

The NEU hasn’t gone on strike during the COVID-19 pandemic despite enduring the longest period without a negotiated agreement in the organization’s history.

“Putting the public at risk by pulling service… ethically, it wouldn’t be right,” Fennell said, explaining the reluctance to take job action over the past year and a half. “Is it OK now? That’s questionable. But they (the Government of Nunavut) have not given us any more choices at this point.”

The union represents more than 5,000 workers, or about one out of every eight Nunavummiut, which the NEU describes as a “sizeable voting group” heading into the Oct. 25 territorial election.

“Hopefully there will be a more compassionate group of MLAs in the next government,” said Fennell. “The ridiculous thing is that the people that they’re hurting… is their brothers and sisters, parents, neighbours, cousins. Those are the people who are working and providing quality public service and getting nothing in return.”

The NEU and the GN are not far apart on wages — approximately one per cent, according to Fennell — but remain at loggerheads over Northern allowance, and the union wants five paid days off for government employees who suffer from incidents of domestic violence. The GN currently offers up to 17 weeks of leave in such circumstances, but all unpaid.

The Northern allowance, which helps cover the cost of living in the territory, hasn’t increased in 13 years, Fennell said. A mediator tried to bring the two parties to a resolution on Oct. 28, 2019 but the GN changed its Northern allowance offer to $16.5 million in total, far less than the $33.8 million proposed months earlier. The government claimed the previous offer was so much higher due to a mathematical error, according to Fennell.

“You can’t offer something and then take it away. If they made a mistake then they should have eaten it,” he said. “I don’t see how any judge in any courtroom in this country could say that’s good-faith bargaining.”

Furthermore, Fennell said the government’s proposed hike in Northern allowance would disproportionately benefit the Qikiqtani region, leaving the Kivalliq and Kitikmeot with sparse gains.

“Giving stuff to one region and not the others, that’s clearly an attempt to divide the membership,” he asserted. “Now they’re trying to drive a wedge between the members. We can’t allow it.”

The union filed a statement of claim against the GN in the Nunavut Court of Justice in November 2019, accusing the territorial government of violating the Public Service Act by bargaining in bad faith. The lawsuit seeks $50,000 in damages for allegedly failing to work towards the conclusion of a new collective agreement in good faith, and would compel the GN to make “every reasonable effort” to reach a deal.

COVID-19 has caused delays in the legal process because the courts are backlogged. However, the parties were at an impasse prior to the pandemic, the NEU president noted.

The union has been open to binding arbitration but the GN has been opposed, Fennell said.

“They don’t want it because what they’re doing is unfair and unjust, and they know that an arbitrator is going to give the union more,” he contended.

Human Resources Minister David Akeeagok was asked in the legislative assembly on Sept. 14 about entering into binding arbitration to settle a collective agreement.

“Having reached a negotiated agreement is an outcome that we want to see,” he said. “Having been told to go through the arbitration, which basically you’re being told what to do, is not the right way.”

Akeeagok encouraged the NEU to return to the bargaining table.

“They’re waiting on a court case. They don’t want to sit with us until that court case is done. That has dragged on far too long and I encourage them to come back. We’re prepared. We’re ready to have an agreement with our collective agreements,” the minister said. “I do applaud our hard-working public service and I hope that we do come up with a collective agreement that both parties can agree to.”

The union doesn’t yet have a date for the resumption of its legal action against the GN.

Fennell’s position as president is up for election on Oct. 7.

About the Author: Derek Neary

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