Thirty unionized Hamlet of Arctic Bay employees took a strike vote Oct. 23 as they looked likely to head into a conciliation process.
The collective agreement between the hamlet and its employees expired in December 2016.
"They've put us between a rock and a hard place," said Public Service Alliance of Canada Northern regional executive vice-president Jack Bourassa.
"We were in negotiations and they decided to pull the plug earlier and file for conciliation."
At the top of the employees' list of grievances is their Northern living allowance, which is less than $8,000, as compared to Pond Inlet's $24,000 or Resolute Bay's $26,000, explained Bourassa, adding the hamlet has offered its employees 0, 1 and 1 per cent over three years for cost of living increases.
"Which in communities in Nunavut doesn't really amount to a hill of beans," added Bourassa.
"Understandably, employees were upset about that."
The norm in collective agreements between other hamlets and their employees is 1.5 to 2.5 per cent, he said.
In the meantime, there remained one more scheduled meeting set to take place before the arrival of a conciliator. But the hamlet has indicated it won’t bargain and the membership's Oct. 23 vote has empowered the negotiating team to use a strike as leverage.
"I'm really hopeful they (the employer) will do something. Certainly if they know the members are prepared to strike and back their bargaining team … This is a serious issue. If you're going to give them less than $8,000 for Northern living allowance, and their counterparts in the same community working for the GN get $24,500 – that's over three times as much," said Bourassa, who expects to land in Arctic Bay sometime in November.
"I'll sit down with the members and if I have the opportunity I'd like to confront mayor and council and see exactly what's going on," he said.
When asked to outline the hamlet's position, senior administrative officer Debbie Johnson said, "No comment. No comment at this time," before abruptly hanging up the telephone.
Johnson reports to the mayor and council but is not a member of the union.
Employees continue in their work and continue to be paid.
Bourassa said the hamlet has refused to demonstrate its financial situation.
"They won't do that, so I can't speak to either confirm or deny that they're having financial hardship because they don't want to demonstrate concretely that they are in some kind of financial hardship," he said.
"They get all their money from the GN, by the way. And every year that includes a cost of living allowance, which increases automatically. But that's not being passed down to the people who work for them."
Nunavut legislation states communities cannot carry a debt. The Department of Community and Government Services did not indicate by press time whether or not the hamlet was in a deficit situation, which would require a deficit recovery plan approved by the department.
The hamlet has also allegedly overused casual employees.
"That's something that's in contravention of the Canada Labour Code. In particular article 2.01 (f) 4 – it actually specifies what a casual employee is, what it means to have a casual employee and what is an abuse of a casual employee. They've been doing this for some time now and I guess to ease some of their burdens financially, and to maybe have employees that they can just do what they will at will," said Bourassa, adding casual employees are not paid at the same grade as unionized employees.
"And they just get fired at a whim, so if the employer doesn't like the way you comb your hair one day, they can just let you go. Because they're casual they just don't have any recourse.
"I don't know what the hamlet council is thinking or what they're doing."
Bourassa also said the hamlet had been violating the previous collective agreement for some time.
Following the attempt at conciliation, if in the conciliator's opinion there's no deal to be had between the two parties, there's a 21-day cooling-off period.
"You can't go on strike nor can you lock out. Once those 21 days is done, you then have to give three days' notice of your intention to either strike or lock out the employees," said Bourassa.