Municipal workers took to the picket lines on Monday morning following a week of false starts and confusion.
“As you can see, we have full support,” said Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers Monday morning on the picket line. “Everyone has decided to come out.”
About a dozen people at a time marched along Woodland Ave. between the Don Stewart Recreation Centre and the new fire hall, while others warmed up at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre. They carried placards proclaiming that everyone is affected by labour issues, workers deserve respect and demanding fair treatment.
Although media inquiries were directed to Parsons, spirits on the picket line were visibly high, with people chatting and joking as they huddled around a fire in a barrel to warm up before going back to marching again. While the streets were relatively quiet, some drivers honked their horns in support while others stared straight ahead and remained silent.
The recreation centre will undoubtedly be where residents will see the most significant impact to their daily lives but according to a press release from the mayor’s office, essential services will continue with no interruption.
“There will be minimal disruption to these essential services and the town can rest assured that water quality and emergency response are our highest priority,” read the statement issued on Friday. “Garbage collection and landfill operations as well as trucked water delivery and sewage pump-out are all services delivered through contract and will not be affected by any strike action.”
Union employees are striking over a one per cent difference in proposed salary increases, something Parsons said will cost the municipality approximately $40,000 per year.
“It’s with a heavy heart that we made this decision to go on strike,” said Parsons. “The rec centre is really the heart of the community.”
While Parsons said the decision to take action was not an easy one, it was delayed. Originally, the union announced they would be taking to the streets as of last Friday at noon. Striking groups are required to give their employers a minimum of 72 hours notice before they take action, something Mayor Andrew Cassidy said the union failed to do at the time.
On Wednesday, the UNW revised their statement, saying that due to misfiled paperwork, they were delaying the strike by an unspecified amount of time. On Friday, they announced they would be out picketing as of 8 a.m. Monday morning, having filed the proper paperwork.
As The Hub has previously reported, union workers voted in January to go on strike in response to the town’s offer of a zero per cent wage increase in the next two years. Through conciliation, the town then offered a one per cent raise for the first two years of the collective agreement, with the possibility for more in the third. The union is standing firm at their demand for 2.5 per cent in the first year and 2.25 per cent the following two years. Employees have been working without an up-to-date collective agreement since the last one expired in 2013.
Previous agreements, however, included a total increase in wages of over 20 per cent in the last seven years. Between 2008 and 2011, union employees saw increases of 3.5, 4.25, and 4.25 per cent over three years, followed by three years of a steady 2.5 per cent increase.
“We collect about $4.1 million in taxes each year, and 88 per cent of that goes to wages,” said Cassidy. “We need to address the much-needed investment in our infrastructure, so we’re offering them a modest increase while we re-evaluate our finances.”
The union and Parsons have maintained the raise is only to keep up with the cost of living.
“The cost of living in the North is high and all we’re asking is that wages keep up with inflation,” he said.
While both sides have said they are looking to head back to the bargaining table, neither has taken any concrete steps to do so. Parsons said that although he is hopeful for a quick resolution, he expects the dispute to continue “for some time.”
Cassidy, speaking for council, said the town is prepared for such an eventuality.
“Council understands the implication of the decision and has decided to stand firm.”