Judge to amend order restricting strike action in Yellowknife

YELLOWKNIFE — A Northwest Territories Supreme Court judge says he will amend an order restricting strike action in Yellowknife after mediation between lawyers representing the city and Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Justice Andrew Mahar had been set to lift the injunction altogether Wednesday morning after the parties agreed to a picketing protocol Tuesday. However, during a court appearance, the lawyers disagreed over whether it should be replaced with an additional court order outlining the terms of their agreement.

Chris Buchanan, representing the city, said having a court order was important to his client, which he argued was reasonable and a common practice in Alberta.

"This reflects the serious nature of what my client was seeking in the first place," he said.

"If they are following the picketing protocol, then what's the concern?"

Michael Fisher, the union's lawyer, said that's not what was agreed. He said his client is concerned the employer had gone to court too quickly and improperly used the court as leverage in their labour dispute, rather than addressing picketing concerns directly with the union.

"As far as I'm concerned, we have an agreement," he said.

The City of Yellowknife had applied for and was granted the temporary injunction on Feb. 14, claiming that wait times for vehicles delayed by picketing workers at municipal sites was increasing and, if not addressed, could cause irreparable harm. The order was granted on an ex parte basis, meaning it was made without input from the union, due to "the serious mischief or injustice that may result from a delay."

The injunction prevented union members from obstructing access to sites where the city operates for 10 days and said no more than six people could picket at those locations. It also said any delay to those sites should only be to convey information, with total delay time not exceeding 10 minutes.

The union had applied to lift the injunction. On Friday, Mahar amended the terms of the order, lifting the restriction on the number of people on the picket line.

On Wednesday, Mahar said with the parties failing to come to an agreement regarding lifting the injunction altogether, he would instead further amend the order to reflect the agreed terms of the picketing protocol, before a hearing could be held.

"I'm sorry things went sideways," he said. "I thought we'd accomplished a fair bit yesterday and maybe we did."

Buchanan, who was tasked with drafting the amendments, said that would include changing the delay time restrictions from 10 to 15 minutes and removing a section in the order stating union members could not threaten, coerce, harass or intimidate agents of the city.

A hearing on the injunction has been scheduled for March 2, but Mahar said the city and union could still come to an agreement before then.

"Good luck and I'll see you then," he said.

Unionized workers with the City of Yellowknife have been locked out and on strike since Feb. 8 after the parties failed to reach a deal on a new collective agreement with wages being a sticking point.

The city has said its offer to the union includes base wage increases of two per cent per year for 2022 and 2023.

The union had been seeking a five per cent raise in 2022 and three per cent raise in 2023 among other benefits. It said it's latest proposal, which it presented to the city on Feb. 13, included wage increases of 3.75 per cent in 2022 and 2023, signing bonuses, and an additional day of paid personal leave per year.

"We feel our last proposal was fair and reasonable and we are hoping that city council will provide the employer with a new mandate that will allow our bargaining teams to close the gap, and get us back to work," the union said in a statement on Wednesday.

The city and the Union of Northern Workers, a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, began bargaining in May. Talks broke down late last year and workers voted to strike last month.

The parties then agreed to re-enter mediated negotiations, but a lockout and strike ensued after the union rejected the city’s offer. Further talks on Feb. 13 also failed to result in an agreement.

The previous collective agreement between the city and union expired at the end of 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press