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Workers are not locked out, says UNW president

Guy Quenneville
Northern News Services
Friday, December 11, 2009

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - The president of the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) says the 10 workers who have been picketing outside the UNW office for the last four days are not locked out - they're on strike, and there's an important difference.

NNSL photo/graphic

Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers (UNW), says the 10 workers who spent all week picketing outside the UNW's office on 52 Street can call the union to request to return to work any time. The few remaining UNW head office workers are working from home since the union's core administrative staff is on the picket line. - NNSL file photo

"What's at stake is there's a misrepresentation that the employer has locked out their employees, which would be an illegal action unless we followed the requirements of the Canada Labour Code," said Todd Parsons, UNW president.

The workers, who want to be placed under a job classification system and are represented by the United Steelworkers, gave strike notice to the UNW last Friday.

Four days earlier, in what Parsons openly admits was a pressure tactic, the UNW informed the workers that their collective agreement - and the benefits that come with them - would expire in one week unless the workers returned to the bargaining table, said Parsons.

Under the labour code, a lockout can only occur after negotiations fail, after a 21-day cool-off period and after the employer gives the workers 72-hours notice of a lockout, said Parsons.

While the first two conditions were met, the UNW never gave notice of a lockout, he said.

"Their perception of this is that because we're not there, the lights are out and the doors are locked, that it's a lockout," said Parsons.

The workers arrived at the UNW office on 52 Street on Monday morning to find the office empty and the front doors locked. Their keys were taken away by the UNW last Friday.

But Parsons said the office - while stripped off its core administrative staff - is still operating, just not at its usual location.

"The only reason the doors are locked is that all of my employees are on strike," said Parsons. "I've got two directors that (still) work for me and one assistant, who's an excluded employee, and we're just working from home. It doesn't make sense to go to the office."

Ken Howie, president of the workers' bargaining unit, Local 8646, said the UNW's issuance of the one-week notice and its locking of the office doors are grounds for calling it a lockout.

"In essence, he (Parsons) created two situations: one situation removing our rights or throwing out our collective agreement, which would create a working condition that we couldn't work in," said Howie.

"And (then there's) the second situation where the employer actually locks you out, restricts your access to be able to go back to work, which they have done as well.

"Under all the definitions, it is a lockout."

According to the Canada Labour Code, a lockout "includes the closing of a place of employment, a suspension of work by an employer or a refusal by an employer to continue to employ a number of their employees, done to compel their employees, or to aid another employer to compel that other employer's employees, to agree to terms or conditions of employment."

Parsons said the UNW's doors remain open - figuratively speaking.

"In order to set the record clear that this is a strike and not a lockout, I'm willing to let any Steelworker - who wishes to cross their own picket line into the building - to work," said Parsons.

"In other words, come Monday, if they tell me, I'll open the building if that's what they want."

Whether the parties will head back to the bargaining table remains unclear. On Monday, Parsons said he was still optimistic.

"We could be at the table in a few days," he said.

But on Wednesday, Howie said, "I have told my negotiator, 'Talk to them.' He feels it would be better to go through a conciliator ... and the word we get from the conciliator is Mr. Parsons has told her that if we come to the table with a job classification system, they will walk away.

"That being our only demand, it's kind of tied our hands as to going back to the table."

Howie said yesterday he wasn't sure whether strike pay for members of United Steelworkers Local 8646 - $175 per week - had come into effect yet.

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