Mahsi, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I am proposing this motion because I believe that entering into binding arbitration is preferable to a strike. If both parties agree to arbitration, then the strike action will be cancelled.
Arbitration acknowledges that collective bargaining has failed, and it provides a path forward to resolve this dispute in a way that is fair to both sides. It allows for the government and the union to save face without the parties calling one another "winners" or "losers."
Mr. Speaker, I have the greatest respect for collective bargaining. My father was a proud member of the trade union for most of his work life. I wrote my Masters' thesis on western Canadian labour history about the appalling working conditions that resulted in hundreds of miners dying in the Crowsnest Pass. I was a member of the union during my 16 years at CBC. In that time, strikes happened on what felt like a regular schedule. When I think about those events at the CBC, I think about the tension of having to cross the picket line because my union was not on strike. I remember a riot at the broadcast centre in Toronto at the end of one of those strikes, where there was a brawl in the atrium and police outside on horseback. It was ugly.
Mr. Speaker, Yellowknife has its own tragic experience with strikes. I am of course talking about the labour dispute at the Giant Mine. I did not live here then, but what happened in Yellowknife was news everywhere. Labour action polarized the community. People threw punches, ended friendships, and moved away. I got to witness the fallout while I was a reporter covering the civil trial in 2003-2004. Widows and mothers talked about their lost husbands and sons, their lives broken and unable to mend without them. At the trial, union members watched video of the mayhem on the picket line and said they did not recognize themselves as those angry, volatile people of 10 years earlier. They told the judge they said and did things in the heat of the moment that they still regretted.
My point is that strikes can be dangerous because stakes are high, tempers flare, and the results are unpredictable. We have already seen the tension rising. The union served legal strike notice. Government put out an email to staff highlighting the possibility of crossing the picket line. The union confronted the Premier at his constituency meeting. Most recently, the government has distributed a waiver for people to sign who want to cross the picket line. It's easy to see how confrontation on the picket line is not just likely, it is inevitable.
Mr. Speaker, I have had dozens of emails and messages supporting the union's request for binding arbitration. One woman is a single mom, a relief worker with two part-time jobs. She is struggling to keep up with her bills. She is asking for an end to casual positions so that she has job security. Another woman has talked about the need to end the widespread use of casual and term positions in order to build up a permanent northern workforce.
I am touched that people have shared their personal circumstances with me and their belief that I, that all of us, can help them by supporting this motion. I believe that, of all of the communities, Yellowknife has the most to lose if there is a strike. We have the biggest number of workers who are eligible to strike, and we have the largest retail sector. A strike is bad news in every way. At a minimum, it will divide the community and put families on the financial ropes. I have also heard from people who are not members of the union, but who are worried about their small businesses, specifically that a strike will dry up consumer spending and result in them laying off staff or even closing shop. Mr. Speaker, there is no upside to a strike; none at all.
Mr. Speaker, I want to make a couple of points that may be obvious to us as MLAs, but may not be clear to the public. The first is that this motion is legal, and what it is requesting is legal. The Public Service Act does not say anything about arbitration in these circumstances, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. The union did not give up the ability to participate in arbitration when they acquired the right to strike. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The starting point for arbitration is to have the GNWT and the Union of Northern Workers agree between themselves to enter binding arbitration, and they can do this at any point. In fact, they could decide to do it today as a backstop to the possibility that mediation doesn't produce an agreement this weekend. The rules of arbitration would be set by the parties themselves, and they would agree on the choice of the arbitrator. As I said earlier, once the parties agree to arbitration, the strike action is cancelled.
To clear up any confusion around the issue of whether the union has formally requested arbitration, the president of the union wrote a letter to the Minister of Finance this week requesting the government to agree to enter binding arbitration. We are waiting for the Minister to respond.
Mr. Speaker, these negotiations have gone on for far too long. Negotiations began in January of 2016, and while the two sides met frequently through that year and in 2017, there was only one negotiation session last year. It's hard to say what mediation produced in the fall, except an agreement to meet again this weekend.
I haven't given up hope that an agreement is still possible. I encourage both parties to put aside the escalating tensions of this week, and work hard to get an agreement through mediation. It is the last opportunity to negotiate an agreement that both parties have a say in. If that fails, binding arbitration moves everything to a third party, and he or she will decide on the concessions. There are no guarantees that either side will get what they want, but this process is preferable to a strike.
Mr. Speaker, I am aware that this motion is not binding on the government even if all Regular MLAs vote for it, but it important for us to provide advice to this government. We have the right as MLAs to speak on any topic in this House, especially on one of the biggest issues of our Assembly. We are not interfering. We are doing our jobs. I truly believe that a strike would be a disaster for Yellowknife, for our families and friends, for our communities and our territory, and that's what I've heard from constituents throughout the last few days.
Colleagues, I urge each and every one of you to support this motion, and bring the possibility of a strike to an end before it starts. Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.