UPDATE: Late on July 31, the Nunavut Employees Union and the employer reached a tentative agreement, potentially ending this prolonged strike. Details of the proposed contact have not been made public. The contract will now be presented to union members for a vote.

Workers at the Iqaluit Housing Authority (IHA) first hit the picket line on March 17. After months of employer resistance and bad faith, members of the Nunavut Employees Union (NEU) remain engaged in one of the longest ongoing labour disputes in Canada. As of today, they’ve been on strike for 135 days.

The 13 striking workers perform maintenance activities and other work for the public housing authority in Iqaluit. Their union, the NEU, is a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) North, and has been attempting to negotiate a new collective agreement with the IHA since last year. The IHA, as the direct employer, is ostensibly constrained by its funding entity, the Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC). The NHC is responsible for allocating funds for all housing associations in Nunavut, which includes the salaries of workers at the IHA. As NEU President Jason Rochon put it to me, “NHC holds the purse strings when it comes to all these housing authorities.”

The union bargaining team and the employer last bargained in mid-June, before agreeing to enter mediation in Ottawa. Thus far, the employer has revised its wage offer only minimally, while continuing to resist proposals aimed at addressing precarious employment and job insecurity. Previous conciliation also failed to produce a path to settlement.

I spoke with Rochon after the union’s first mediation session. Unfortunately, as the union president and the bargaining team saw it, the employer has not used mediation to get any closer to a new contract. “We’re talking about an employer who refuses to be transparent and makes everything difficult,” Rochon said.

After the union issued its strike notice in March, the IHA preemptively locked the workers out. The NEU/PSAC union members are fighting for fair wages that keep up with inflation, provisions to address job insecurity and fix persistent recruitment and retention issues, compensation for speaking Inuktitut on the job, and better housing opportunities. The employer, instead, is seeking to impose a “rental deduction” on employees who live in housing authority facilities, an insulting concession Rochon says the union has refused.

Perhaps most frustrating for the union, the IHA has remained steadfast in its refusal to meaningfully improve wage offers to employees, sticking to a financial “mandate” that would see workers’ pay fall desperately short of inflation. At the time that the union issued its strike notice in March, the employer had tabled annual wage increases between 1.25 and 1.5 per cent, despite historically high inflation and an acute cost-of-living crisis in Nunavut. The union, by contrast, began seeking wage increases of 10.3 per cent over five years, with market rate adjustments for certain job classifications. The IHA later countered with 7.25 per cent over the same time period, but continues to refuse all market adjustments.

“[W]hen you are dealing with an employer who has shown no signs of any honest commitment to reaching a fair agreement on wages, you are left with no options and this is why we are where we are at this point,” said the NEU President at the time the strike was called.

Nicky Nauyuk, a plumber at the IHA, added, “The cost of living in Iqaluit has dramatically increased over time, more so in the last year. We are looking for a fair increase in salaries to be able to afford the increasing cost of living. A deal will not be possible if it means the deterioration of our current benefits and salaries that are making it hard for current staff to remain working at Iqaluit Housing.”

The union is also fighting against precarious employment at the IHA. According to Rochon, the employer is trying to make working conditions more uncertain for those who are currently employed on a temporary and casual basis, which is exacerbating the IHA’s recruitment and retention problems. “They continue to refuse to offer good jobs and good wages to local, Inuit workers,” he told me. “They could solve their recruitment and retention issues by offering fair wages.”

The recruitment issue, according to the NEU, also goes well beyond the rank-and-file workforce. “They’ve had managers in and out like a circus carousel,” the union president said. “You can get dizzy trying to keep up with the mismanagement and new managers. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to negotiate with somebody and it seems like they don’t even know who’s in charge.”

In November 2022, after bargaining had already reached an impasse, the union called on Lorne Kusugak, the minister responsible for the NHC, and the IHA president and board of directors to intervene, revise the NHC’s bargaining mandate, and “do the right thing” by offering fair wages and addressing the workers’ concerns. These appeals seem to have made little difference. Instead, all parties on the governing and employer side have allowed the dispute to drag on, putting workers’ livelihoods in jeopardy and allowing the employer to largely disengage from the bargaining process.

To add insult to injury, the IHA began using scabs to replace striking union members early in the strike. As PSAC North argued, “The use of scabs during a strike results in longer strikes and more difficult strikes — we know this from evidence around the world. In communities like Iqaluit, it pits neighbour against neighbour, dividing communities and families.”

Unlike the provinces, all labour relations in Nunavut fall under federal jurisdiction. Unionization and collective bargaining are therefore regulated by the Canada Labour Code. At present, the Code forbids employers from using scabs only if the union can prove the employer is aiming to “undermine the representational capacity” of the union (i.e., to break the union, rather than to achieve “legitimate” bargaining objectives). This is an extremely high bar for unions to clear. PSAC, along with most Canadian unions, has called on the federal Liberal government to introduce anti-scab legislation to ban the use of replacement workers in all situations. The Liberals have promised this legislation before the end of 2023 but have yet to deliver.

“The use of scab labour by the Iqaluit Housing Authority is yet more proof that robust anti-scab legislation can’t come soon enough. Legislation that puts workers first would prevent employers from using scabs instead of working to resolve labour disputes in good faith,” PSAC North correctly points out.

In May, unions held a rally in support of the striking workers and called on federal Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan to make good on the promise of anti-scab legislation and to intervene directly in this dispute on the side of the workers. Thus far, Ottawa has been largely silent. The lack of attention or concern from the Liberals is doubly troubling, given the government’s purported commitments to strengthening worker protections and to reconciliation with Indigenous and Inuit peoples.

The union has called the use of replacement workers to undermine the strike of these mostly Inuit workers racist. The NEU President put the issue to me this way, “We’re tired of their tricks. We’re talking about 13 young, local, Indigenous workers. They are proud Inuktitut speakers and we shouldn’t have to fight to get them a language bonus. This is in Nunavut, on Inuit land.”

The union bargaining team met with an IHA representative in a mediation session on July 21, where the former presented a reasonable path for reaching a tentative agreement. As the union characterized it, “this path represented a significant movement of the Union Bargaining Team in an effort to reach a deal.” However, “the IHA representative refused it, offering only a slight wage increase in a future year that does not even come close to addressing the current or future economic reality of working and living in Nunavut.” As the union sees it, the employer still has no intention of reaching a deal that addresses workers’ needs.

Although the number of workers involved in this dispute is small, the strike’s significance is not. These are Indigenous workers doing vitally important work for an employer who, by most accounts, has refused to be reasonable and meet workers’ modest demands.

Like so many drawn-out strikes, the end can feel perceptibly close yet exceedingly far away. The distance between the union and the employer tends to close over time, but the bitterness and intractability grows. Traversing this impasse requires broad union support, something which can be difficult to muster as those not directly involved become disengaged from the struggle. The outcome in Iqaluit, however, impacts us all. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” as the old saying goes.

Recent Class Struggle Issues