There’s still no end in sight to the strike by city employees in Yellowknife, and one labour expert says an apparent breakdown in trust between the city and union could prolong the situation.
Workers have been on strike for nearly three weeks. Most recently, the union refused an offer of arbitration, and the union and city still aren’t bargaining — despite telling each other to get back to the negotiating table.
Rafael Gomez, the director for the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, has been following the situation. He said Tuesday that without trust between the two parties, one other avenue forward is through a third party — but not necessarily an independent arbitrator. City council could help bridge the gap between the two parties, he said.
On Monday morning, Lorraine Rousseau, the regional executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) North, told CBC the union decided to reject the city’s offer to put the labour dispute before a third-party arbitrator because the time that process would take could be better spent by negotiating with each other directly.
Rousseau also decried the city’s decision to publicize the offer of arbitration before the union could consult its members.
Later that day, PSAC and the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) issued a news release accusing the city of “restricting access” to Yellowknife councillors by refusing to let the president of UNW’s Yellowknife chapter speak about the strike at a council meeting.
Mayor Rebecca Alty and several city councillors have posted to their Facebook pages about their disappointment in the union’s decision not to go to arbitration.
Gomez spoke to CBC’s Trailbreaker host Marc Winkler about what an arbitrator would do, what it would mean for both parties, and what other options are out there.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How common is it that an employer would put out a press release with an offer before a union is able to respond?
We tend to think of bargaining as a place where you can have a cone of silence, if you will — a sphere of opportunity to put forth any option, let the parties tackle them and get back to the process of bargaining.
I think it’s uncommon for things to be released. I wouldn’t say it’s unprecedented — there are precedents where it becomes a public dispute, especially in places where the dispute impacts the public in a large way.
That, by definition, almost always involves public service workers and unions, but it can also happen in the private sector if it’s a large employer. Think of a town where the biggest employer is also unionized. If there’s a dispute, the media might come into play to put pressure on one of the parties.
But it does create an atmosphere of distrust, which is not good for bargaining. It’s a strategic tactic, but it could paradoxically make the bargaining process last longer.
If you begin to get animosity creeping in, and feelings that you’ve been treated unfair, then things happen that are not totally rational. If there’s a procedural fairness or justice issue, then members might become more hardened and will want to have a sign from the other party that they’ve understood that they’ve been affected by certain tactics that they feel has been unfair or crossed the line.
The city proposed binding arbitration two weeks after the strike began. When would that sort of thing typically be put on the table?
It can happen immediately. Two weeks doesn’t seem that atypical. Oftentimes, you don’t know who proposed it. It just happens, because that happens behind closed doors.
Given that it’s the employer who offered it, you can get a sense that maybe there’s a weakness on that side that feels they won’t achieve what they want through bargaining, and therefore are hoping for a better outcome through arbitration.
The other issue is public services. You’re a city government and there are services that the city wants to continually provide the citizens.
What are some of the dangers of entering binding arbitration?
I think bargaining is great. It’s a great institution, but there are times when it reaches an impasse.
You do reach a point where you think, if a neutral party comes in, is accepted by both parties, what’s the downside of that? And the decision that’s usually made is one that is seen by both parties as fair, even if you don’t get what you want.
However, the time can sometimes be very protracted. An arbitrator has to listen to both sides. A good arbitrator doesn’t just make a decision. Like a good judge, they write their decision, so they have to have a rationale.
I don’t see very big downsides when you have an institution like arbitration, which is pretty sophisticated and has a lot of history. The one downside is it takes a while, and the union feels like if they press, they can maybe get what they want in a shorter time and maybe a better outcome through the bargaining table.
Does the arbitrator try to find somewhere in the middle?
People can choose binding arbitration, and then within that, choose something called “final offer” arbitration. That means the arbitrator picks the most reasonable offer. And that sometimes brings parties to a closer number.
A good arbitrator listens to reasoning, rationale, data. In this case, it’s difficult because we’ve had two or three years of pandemic, we’ve seen labour shortages result, and the public service is not like a private company that could ostensibly threaten to replace the workers with tech or move the operation. This is a service that’s going to stay, and the workers know that.
The city is offering a two per cent pay raise for last year and two per cent for this year. The union wants 3.75 per cent for both years. How far apart are these two proposals?
In the context of wage and inflation numbers we’ve seen, those numbers look pretty close, which to my mind speaks to a hardening of attitude — a feeling that we’ve been hard done by in the process and we’ve been mistreated.
I’m talking about the union’s feelings here, and maybe to some extent even the management and the city. When the strike vote was called, they panicked perhaps and were fearful there would be a disruption and thought that was unfair.
So I think this speaks to a hardening of attitudes, and trust has to re-enter this relationship.
And I think those numbers don’t speak to a reason why we should have such a prolonged labour dispute at this point.
The union says there’s still a window of opportunity to negotiate, instead of bringing in an arbitrator. What do you make of that?
Ultimately, the best deals are made between two parties because they own them. A better outcome, ultimately, can be negotiated.
However, the proviso is that people want to negotiate. If one party feels like they’re done, it’s hard for the other party to make that happen. That’s why we have institutions like arbitration to step in.
What, in your view, is the role of a city council in a situation like this?
It comes down to leadership, right? You have to have someone or some group assessing the situation. It does seem like you need to re-establish a sense of trust, a sense of fairness — that look, these two parties are not going to go anywhere, right?
The city and the workers and the citizens are stuck with each other. And in those situations, you can’t walk away.
We talk about an economic exit or voice. If you don’t like the situation, those are your two options. You use your voice, you mediate or you end the relationship and you exit. And that happens in an employment context, it happens in personal relationships. Well, here there’s no exit option. You have to stick together, so you have to use bargaining, talking with each other and establishing a sense of trust at the end, that people are willing to come back to the negotiating table and not have to worry about ploys and tactics in which people’s strategies are aired to the media.
I think you need a period in which someone steps up – city council would be great, even the mayor – to sort of say, hey, as a person who wants to get this resolved, because we are going to live with each other for a very long time, something has to give. Something has to be done.