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Fort Smith town workers walk out
Strike over contracting out begins on July 18

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Monday, July 23, 2012

Fort Smith's municipal workers went on strike July 18 over one issue - the possibility of the town contracting municipal services to independent businesses.

NNSL photo/graphic

Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers, walks in front a car driven by Fort Smith Mayor Janie Hobart as she turns into town hall on July 18, the first day of a strike by town workers. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

"The money isn't the major issue. It's job security for all the employees," said Anne Sebert, an executive assistant with the town, as she walked a picket line at town hall.

She said the striking workers are committed and strong.

"We will continue as long as we have to."

Meanwhile, at the town's landfill site, Don MacLean was experiencing his first time on strike.

"It's a little nervous, but I think it's worth the fight for our jobs," said the facility maintainer.

About 50 workers walked off the job, while five were identified as essential services and remained at work. The strikers set up four picket lines at town hall, the Rec Centre, the municipal garage and the landfill.

The town's last offer before the strike proposed no contracting out language as suggested by the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) be placed in a letter of understanding that would expire on Dec. 31, 2013, at the end of a new contract.

The UNW rejected the offer, which included a 2.5 per cent pay increase in each of the two years, because of the contracting out proposal.

Todd Parsons, the Yellowknife-based union president who was in Fort Smith for the first week of the strike, criticized the town's idea of dealing with contracting out through a letter of understanding.

"It's just arrogance that they've taken this position," he said. "They've actually agreed to the union's language, but put so many limitations around that language that it nullifies it in 18 months."

Parsons said he believes the town intends to go ahead with contracting out in the future.

Mayor Janie Hobart defended dealing with contracting out through a letter of understanding.

"I think that there needs to be an awful lot more thought go into what is the best way to balance employee job security with allowing the town to operate in an efficient manner and using local businesses, who help pay the tax bill here," she said. "We do need to look at both sides of it, but I don't think right now is perhaps the best time to be doing it with emotions running as high as they are."

Hobart also noted council only has a few months left in its mandate and did not want to tie the hands of councils in perpetuity by putting contracting out language in a collective agreement.

One potential strike complication had been the town's plan to contract companies to do some work normally done by strikers.

However, on Friday, the town backed away from that plan.

A message on its website explained garbage collection and the landfill would be managed to meet health and safety concerns "while still showing respect to our employees by not contracting out services."

There will be a central location on July 24 for residents to bring garbage, which will then be taken to the landfill site.

On Saturday, Hobart said details are being worked out, but noted, "It will not be done by a contractor. There will be no cost to the town to do this."

She said the town is working on details and will judge the response and determine how often the service will be needed.

Hobart said the town cannot let garbage go uncollected, noting ravens would spread it around and it would attract bears.

The landfill will be open from 1:30-4 p.m. on July 24 & 27 mainly to allow businesses to take their refuse to the landfill as required by the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission.

The union stance is the landfill should be closed.

Parsons had earlier expressed concern about the possible use of replacement workers.

"That's the big 'S' in the labour movement," he said.

Parsons said strikes are prolonged when employers use replacement workers.

As for dog control, Hobart said the RCMP will deal with dangerous situations and the town would only respond in emergency situations if the police are unavailable.

The town and the union previously reached an essential services agreement, which will see some unionized workers remain on the job two water plant operators, waterworks supervisor, town foreman and landfill attendant, who will maintain the site but refuse garbage.

Town hall remains open at decreased hours. Fire and ambulance services and access to physiotherapy services at the Rec Centre will continue as usual. However, the town's recreation facilities are closed.

As in any strike, public opinion may influence how it unfolds.

Sebert is pleased with support for the strikers from town residents, especially motorists waving and honking horns as they pass by.

"I can't believe the support," she said. "It's amazing and impressive."

Ernest LeGuerrier, who works for the GNWT and is a UNW member, brought coffee to strikers on the picket line at the landfill.

Asked about the opinion of town residents, he said, "The general feeling is nobody wants a strike, but you need it to save the workers their jobs. All they want is job security and I can perfectly understand that."

Hobart said she has been receiving messages of support for the town's stance.

"There are people on the side of the employees, but I'm receiving e-mails and phone calls indicating that they are supporting town council, too," she said, adding many people believe the town made a fair last offer.

Parsons criticized Hobart for her role leading up to the strike.

"I completely believe she is driving this solely and I also have very good information that council is very divided on this issue," he said.

Hobart rejected that opinion, noting, "When council makes their decision, we speak with one voice and the decision was made that this was a fair and reasonable offer."

Four members of town council are also members of the UNW, although not town employees.

One of them is Coun. Claudette James, who talked to Parsons on the picket line on the first day of the strike as she entered town hall to support the acting senior administrative officer.

"I told him I thought that we had tried to listen to the concerns of the employees and offered them a fair deal and tried to compromise on the contracting out issue in order that cooler heads may prevail in the future," she said, noting there was no division on council about the last offer.

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