GN-NEU wage deal decided on northern allowance

By Jim Bell, Nunatsiaq News, 9 April 2004

It's hard to say no to

The Government of Nunavut bought three-and-a half of years of labour peace for itself by throwing money at the northern allowance, says Doug Workman, the president of the Nunavut Employees Union.

NEU and Nunavut government negotiators reached a tentative wage and benefit deal last week, covering the period between April 1, 2003 and September 30, 2006.

The new agreement covers about 1,750 employees—or about one-third of Nunavut residents who have jobs. The union will recommend that its members accept the deal, in a mail-in vote to be held soon.

The decisive factor in reaching the deal, Workman said, is the government's willingness to put more money into its Nunavut northern allowance benefit, especially northern allowances paid to employees living in small communities outside of Iqaluit.

The Nunavut northern allowance is an extra annual payment that's supposed to cover vacation travel and the higher cost of living in small Nunavut communities. Each Nunavut community is designated with a different northern allowance, with the smallest and most isolated communities getting the largest payments.

I think the average increase is between $1,100 and $1,400, although in a few communities, it's higher. Arviat gets an increase of about $3,000. Taloyoak gets an increase of about $4,000, Workman said.

The union also accepted wage increases of 3 per cent in each of the first three years of the three-and-a-half-year deal, and a 1.5 per cent increase in the final six months.

He pointed out that the agreement is retroactive to April 1, 2003. That means GN employees will see a 6 per cent jump in their pay cheques as of April 1 this year.

That's pretty hard to say no to. If you're making $40,000, 6 per cent is an extra $2,400 a year, Workman said

For the union, though, accepting the deal still means a big climb-down from its original negotiating position.

Before talks started, the NEU did extensive research on Nunavut's cost-of-living, and compared the GN's northern allowance system with those offered by other employers, such as Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the federal government.

After that, they produced an initial negotiating position that demanded big increases in the northern allowance, tying it to family size.

We were up front in the beginning. We shared our research on the northern allowance and tried to make sense of the improvements that we needed, he said.

They also asked for a wage hike of 10 per cent in each year of a three-year contract—similar to a wage increase that MLAs gave themselves recently, Workman said.

But getting the 3 cent wage annual increases offered by the GN, coupled with hefty northern allowance hikes, convinced the NEU bargaining committee to take the deal, Workman said.

When they offered the three, three, three and one-point-five, that's when we said we're making a recommendation as a committee to accept... The bottom line is, at the end of the day, there was money on the table for the northern allowance, Workman said.

But Workman said the union is disappointed that the government said no to all of union's proposals aimed at making the workplace friendlier to Inuit.

That includes special seasonal cultural leave for employees who want to go hunting, and new definition of immediate family.

We know that we have union members in Nunavut who are related by traditional naming and by the extended family, and that's not reflected in the collective agreement. There was no appetite from the employer to put that in the collective agreement. That was disappointing, Workman said.

However, he said the union won some concessions on other forms of leave. Employees may now get time off to serve with the Rangers, or on hamlet councils and committees.

And employees who serve at least nine years will now qualify for 25 days of annual leave—a move that's aimed at retaining employees.

But Workman doesn't know if the new package will help the GN recruit and retain staff. Since 1999, the territorial government has been coping with hundreds of staff vacancies and a highly transient work force—and few employees who want to stay in their jobs for long.

We'll see what happens. We don't have a lot of long-term employees anymore. It's the turnover that drives everyone crazy. You don't move forward with new programs and you're always re-inventing the wheel with new people always coming in.