Town workers back to work

Kim Tybring Employee of the  Town of Hay River and strike captain of walkout from  Puts picket signs in the dumpster after the strike ended.

Kim Tybring
Employee of the Town of Hay River
and strike captain of walkout from
Puts picket signs in the dumpster after the strike ended.

Town council has ratified a new contract with its unionized workers, which will finally end a nearly six-month strike.

However, councillors were less than enthusiastic – or unanimous – in approving the new deal at an Aug. 5 special meeting.

One by one they criticized the wage increases as unsustainable.

Coun. Jason Coakwell, one of two councillors to vote against ratification, said wage increases should reflect the cost of living.

“Over the years, our increases have well surpassed the actual cost of living increases and ratifying this agreement is only going to compound that problem further,” he said.

The new three-year contract, which will expire on Dec. 31, 2016, was previously overwhelmingly approved by the strikers. It provides annual wage increases of two per cent retroactive to Jan. 1, 2014; two per cent retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015; and 1.75 per cent on Jan. 1, 2016.

The other councillor to vote against the agreement was Mike Maher.

“I think no one is happy with the offer that we’re settling at,” he said.

While six councillors approved the deal, all objected to the wage increases, which they argued will create financial problems that will have to be dealt with in the future.

However, they believe it is time to end the strike for the good of the community.

“Overall, it’s not just about the financial impact to the community,” said Coun. Vince McKay. “It’s also about the health and wellbeing and the mental wellbeing of the community.”

Deputy Mayor Donna Lee Jungkind felt it was time for the strikers to come back to work, but she said ways will have to be found to mitigate the impact of the wage increases.

Coun. Keith Dohey said his vote was a return to the status quo.

“I’m voting in favour of having our arena back open and having our community back together, and ending the division that’s been going on,” he said, adding he was not in favour of the wage increases.

Dohey thanked town administration staff for their work during the strike.

“They stuck it out through a pretty stressful and difficult time,” he said.

While saying the wage increases are not sustainable, Coun. Kandis Jamieson voted for the deal, saying, “I think the community has been through enough.”

Coun. Brad Mapes criticized the workers’ union for claiming victory in the strike.

“To be honest, nobody wins,” he said. “I think it’s terrible for them to kind of toot their horn to think that they won.”

Coun. Roger Candow said council had little choice but to ratify the agreement.

“If we don’t ratify this tonight, we will be seen as not negotiating in good faith,” said Candow, who also said he was part of a union for 35 years. “So we’re basically up against the wall when it comes to this.”

Mayor Andrew Cassidy said the town rose above the “mudslinging” that occurred during the strike.

“For me, I think that shows true leadership because it’s very easy to get engaged in that style, especially on social media,” the mayor said.

Following the meeting, Cassidy said the workers will have a phased return to work, beginning on Aug. 12.

The town saved a significant amount of money in wages during the strike, but the cost of the negotiated increases will compound over time, said the mayor. “Council is aware of that and council is very concerned about that.”

On the morning following the council meeting, the striking workers – members of the Union of Northern Workers and represented in negotiations by the Public Service Alliance of Canada – were getting rid of picket signs.

Kim Tybring, the strike captain, said he is pleased the long and difficult struggle is over.

“I look very much forward to getting back to work and working again with the town management team trying to get this whole situation behind us,” he said. “It’s terrible that it went this long, but I think it is great that we finally resolved it all.”

Tybring said the workers will try their very best to normalize relations with town management as quickly as possible.

Thirty-one workers went on strike Feb. 9.

Cassidy said, under a memorandum of settlement, the town will be informed who will be returning to work, since some strikers have taken employment elsewhere.

One employee was terminated during the strike, but the mayor said that was not strike-related. Instead, he explained the position was deemed redundant.

During the latter part of the strike, the town contracted companies on an as-and-when basis to maintain outdoor spaces and help with administration, much to the consternation of the strikers and their union.

Cassidy said, if the returning workers cover those duties, the contractors will not be needed.

However, the town has not hired summer workers for park maintenance, he noted. “So there may be work still for these as-and-when contractors.”

That means the contractors will “potentially” work with ex-strikers, he said. “We’ll manage this. If this is going to be a potential problem, then obviously we won’t put them working together.”