Town of Watson Lake to lock out unionized workers

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The town of Watson Lake has told its 21 unionized employees that they'll be locked out on Monday morning.

Contract talks between the town and its workers broke off earlier this year. The collective agreement expired at the end of 2015 and the two sides began negotiating last May.

Last month, the unionized workers voted in favour of a strike mandate, but did not set a deadline to walk off the job.

On Thursday, the town sent a notice to the union advising it that the lock out would go into effect at 7 a.m. Monday, and last until 1 p.m. that day. 

"We've been trying to get back to the bargaining table," said Steve Geick, who speaks for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).

"We approached the employer about going to binding arbitration because we're so close to a deal. Basically, there's only one outstanding item."

He says the outstanding issue is hours of work for the town's protective services (fire and bylaw) staff.

"So we thought, 'OK, we've got most of it done, so let's go to arbitration and have some third party make the decision for us.' And the employer's answer? We got a letter — 'we're locking you out, Monday morning.' They're not even interested in talking."

PSAC also said last month it was also considering lodging a "bad faith" bargaining complaint with the Labour Relations Board.

Geick says once a lockout is enacted, the workers will be without the protection of a collective agreement.

Town says no progress made  

Rick Rotondi, acting chief administrative officer of the Town of Watson Lake, declined an interview with CBC. Instead, he referred to a "special edition" of the town's community newsletter, issued on Friday.

It explains the town's decision to lock out employees, saying "no progress has been made" since talks ended in February.

The newsletter identifies hours of work for protective services and for parks and recreation staff as its main concern.

"The Town believes that these two areas must provide service beyond the normal 'Monday to Friday, 9 to 5' window, and that such service must be affordable," it reads.

The newsletter notes that "if a work stoppage occurs — either a strike by workers or a lock out by the Employer — the Collective Agreement is, essentially, no longer in effect. This means that the Town can adjust the terms of employment for its employees if it feels it must."

It goes on to explain it will adjust the schedules of protective services, parks and recreation staff  "to provide more cost effective services."

The newsletter also states it will suspend the grievance and arbitration processes until a new collective agreement is signed.

It also says the town "regrets the need to take lock out action."

'Personal attack' on fire chief, union says

Geick believes the town's focus on work hours is directed specifically at the fire chief, who also happens to be the head of the local union — Yukon Employees Union 029.

"There seems to be a target on his back. He's also the local president, and a member of the bargaining team. Our opinion at this point is that it's a personal attack," Geick said.

"For the last 50 years, that position has been scheduled to work Monday to Friday. And now all of a sudden, they want to be able to have that individual work basically seven days a week if need be." 

Geick says no other rural fire chief in the territory faces that demand.

"[Residents] are not going to get the services they need and deserve, because the town is, in my opinion, being a bunch of assholes. You can quote me on that if you want."

Geick could not say whether the workers will return to work at 1 p.m. on Monday, or if they will elect to strike. He's travelling to Watson Lake this weekend for meetings.