By Dan Darrah
Publisher of Durham Region’s labour newsletter Critical Perspectives, available at www.criticalperspectives.org
HAY RIVER, NWT – After a gruelling six-month strike, the municipal government of the small community of Hay River has ratified an agreement that agrees to the workers’ hard-fought demand for wage increases.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents the 31 municipal landscapers, lifeguards, pool attendants, by-law enforcement officers and office administrators, said the wage increases are a tool to combat the rising cost of living in the north.
The agreed increases of two percent this year and another 1.5 percent in 2016 fall short of what the PSAC fought for – two percent in the first year and 2.25 percent in the second. However, the deal is seen as a big win for the 31 local government employees who went on strike.
Considering the tiny size of Hay River’s population – approximately 3,606 people – the striking workers lasted through the seemingly interminable six-month dispute with resilience.
Striking in small towns can yield serious and obvious divisiveness. Tensions become centralized in the community and in turn can cause support for strikers to dwindle.
Strike captain Kim Tybring paints a different image, however. “During the winter months, a lot of individuals stopped by with coffee, hot chocolate, and donuts.”
Tybring says the small donations from community members and a few of the local businesses helped get the strikers through the harsh northern winter.
However, he underscored that the most important source of solidarity was in the bonds developed on the picket line.
“Maybe I’m just a little philosophical,” he says, “but we were there for each other, we never let each other down. We got to know each other’s families, and now we’re closer than ever.”
He then explains a revelation he had on the picket line.
“Honestly, I wasn’t a good union member. And Hay River is a union town. I saw members from other unions honk their horns at us, but other than a few exceptions, that was the extent. I was a bit disappointed. But that’s what I used to do.”
“It wasn’t enough, and now I realize that.”
Mayor David Cassidy echoes Tybring’s appreciation for community engagement, but for different reasons. In a recent interview, Cassidy heralded the citizens of Hay River for doing work that “wasn’t getting done,” such as groundskeeping.
He later claimed that town council would likely take the first steps in mending the relationship between the town and its workers.
The strike began on Feb. 9 after the union failed to solidify an agreement with the Hay River government regarding wages.
“There wasn’t even a negotiation,” Tybring says. “They offered us zero percent.”
After the first 10 weeks of the strike, the union pressed the town to consider arbitration. Soon after, the town declined, calling for the dispute to be resolved “at the community level.”
The town’s dodging of arbitration was revealed to be only one obstacle. Over the duration of the strike, the municipality commissioned temporary workers – scabs – to circumvent the strikers.
Interestingly, the mayor attempted to dispel the so-called rumours of using scab labour, claiming the union was “misleading” the public.
Tybring says the strikers would visit the temporary workers doing their work and reiterate that they were crossing a picket line. When local police warned that such actions were considered criminal harassment, Tybring suggested new tactics with a need to be “better than that.”
The results were “Maintained by Scab Labour” signs that were put out in front of their building.
Later, vandalism of picket signs and alleged threats against workers contributed to further agitation on the picket line. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) issued a statement in anticipation that tensions could become violent.
Meanwhile, according to a statement from the PSAC, the government did everything in its power to “break the union.”
As strike action reached its sixth month mark, strains on the community were approaching a breaking point.
A new agreement was put forth by the municipality, which noted that the workers were devout in achieving at least a two percent wage increase. Despite a split council – two councillors voted against the new agreement – the majority pushed it forward and both the government and the workers of PSAC ratified the settlement.
The dissident councillors, Mike Maher and Jason Oakwell, did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the strikers’ public Facebook page having featured a photo of a “Countdown to Election Day” sign, Tybring says that retaliatory action at the polls would not be taken.
“It was just funny because they were so offended [about the sign],” she says. “We work for the SAO [Senior Administrative Officer], not council.”
PSAC North Vice President Jack Bourassa comments, “it’s my hope that the differences arising from this strike will be overcome sooner than later.”
Tybring says that they are going to make every effort to “normalize” relations with management.