YELLOWKNIFE — Frigid temperatures didn't stop workers from marching outside city hall in the territorial capital Wednesday, carrying signs reading "not about greed, it's about need" and "locked out," as passing drivers honked in support.
"We're freezing for a reason and that reason is we want a fair wage," said strike captain Daryl Snow.
Unionized workers with the City of Yellowknife were on picket lines and the city locked out employees early Wednesday after mediation between the parties failed.
The city and the Union of Northern Workers, a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, were unable to reach a deal on a new collective agreement, with the union expressing concern about wages.
Snow, who works at city facilities including the fieldhouse, multiplex and arena, said workers plan to picket in front of various city buildings in shifts until a deal is reached.
"Hopefully the employer will come back to the table with us and they can work things out with our bargaining team and we'll get back to work," he said, noting city services had previously been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. "The last thing we need now is to disrupt everybody's lives again and we want to go back, we want a fair deal."
While negotiations were ongoing, the city said a work stoppage would see the closure of the public library, pool, community arena and dump to the public, as well as the reduction of other services. Emergency services, including fire and ambulance, would continue.
Brian Cole, who works in the city's Department of Public Works and Engineering and was among those picketing outside city hall, said he also wants to get back to work.
"The cost of life is going up, so we need an increase, too," he said.
The previous collective agreement between the city and union expired at the end of 2021.
Collective bargaining between the parties broke down late last year and they entered conciliation. When the union rejected the city's final offer, which it described as "insulting" to the bargaining team in a letter to the mayor and council, unionized employees voted to strike last month.
That offer included a two per cent salary increase for staff in 2022 and a further two per cent increase for 2023.
Lorraine Rousseau, regional executive vice-president of Public Service Alliance of Canada North, has said the union was hoping for a more competitive wage, noting inflation rose seven per cent in Yellowknife last year.
The parties then agreed to re-enter mediated negotiations early this week in a final effort to reach a new agreement.
On Tuesday afternoon, the union said in a news release that the employer wasn't willing to table a new offer and, unless it did so before midnight, members would strike.
"It truly feels like the employer did not come back to the table to bargain in good faith," the union said, asking residents not to cross picket lines.
The city, meanwhile, said in a statement that the union's bargaining team left the table with more than 13 hours left to reach a deal. The city said it was not given an "opportunity to be creative and work with the union towards a solution."
The city said there are about 205 employees in the bargaining unit.
The union gave notice to the city on Saturday, saying if a deal wasn't reached by Wednesday, staff would go on strike. The city responded, saying it would lock out employees at 5 a.m. Wednesday.
The union sent a letter to city councillors urging them not to cross picket lines.
"Crossing picket lines, especially for city councillors who are leadership to the management and the unionized workers, shows ultimate disrespect for your workers," it states.
The union also sent letters to three councillors who are members of the union advising them to recuse themselves from discussions or voting on collective bargaining.
Councillors Steve Payne, Rob Warburton and Ben Hendriksen said in a statement that while they are union members, they are not employed by the city and have a duty to uphold their role as elected councillors. They wrote that the union's letter was "disheartening" and that they consider it to be intimidation.
"We know the UNW may not see things this way, but it is unfortunate that they have decided to publicly pit their own members against one another," it states. "We as councillors are all confident in our ability to perform our elected roles objectively despite the perceptions of others."
The union said its executive voted to use $250,000 form its wage disruption fund to provide additional financial support to members on strike.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Emily Blake, The Canadian Press