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Living Standards in Nunavut
Firmly Support Workers’ Fight for Respect and Improved Living Standards for All Residents!
Workers’ Forum recently spoke with Jason Rochon, President of the Nunavut Employees Union (NEU), about the union’s concerns and priorities for the new year. Workers’ Forum salutes the workers of Nunavut who are fighting for their rights and the rights of all under the most difficult conditions.
Workers’ Forum: What are the priorities of the NEU and your own, as President, for 2022?
Jason Rochon: In one word, our priority is that our workers must be treated with the respect they deserve.
Our union represents more than 5,000 workers at all levels of government within Nunavut — municipal, including housing, the Government of Nunavut (GN) and Qulliq Energy Corporation (QEC) which is the power corporation. We represent all categories of civil servants at the local and territorial levels.
Right now we have workers who have not had a contract since September 2018, that is about 4,000 GN employees. We just completed a campaign for a new fair deal for the GN workers because they have been working for four years now without a deal and in that time the cost of living has gone up so much. In the campaign, which we called “Here for Nunavut,” we had our members send letters to their Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). We had a letter online and they could add their name and hit ‘send.’ This email campaign to our MLAs was to get them to come back to the table. We also had radio ads, print ads and social media ads. Our ads were bilingual, in English and in Inuktitut.
Our GN workers have been working through COVID-19. They brought the COVID-19 cases back to zero numerous times They are frontline workers. They are the school custodians, they have been keeping the hospitals clean, they are working in finance, making sure that people are getting paid. They have been dealing with an employer that has a lot of jobs that are not filled. In our workplaces when we look to our right and our left we see lots of empty seats. Our workers are pulling their weight and more and they are not being compensated for it. It’s causing a lot of stress, a lot of sickness, a lot of toxicity because people are burning out.
Our members have also been working with the day-to-day challenges including the high cost of living, food insecurity, with lack of access to mental health supports. We have been pushing and fighting for the government to come back to the table and negotiate a fair deal. We have a lawsuit against them right now for negotiating in bad faith. I made a public video and I said that I will drop the lawsuit on behalf of our members if they come back to the table and negotiate a fair deal and make sure that we are putting our members and the people of Nunavut first.
For the GN workers, a sticking point now with our contracts is the Northern Living Allowance and the fact that it has not been raised in 12 years.  That is inexcusable because we know the cost of living keeps going up, especially during the last two years of the pandemic. People cannot catch up. Our members are struggling. We need to make sure that our members can pay their bills and sleep at night without having to worry about their finances.
We need wage increases. Another of our sticking points with the GN is paid domestic violence leave. We know that women, and anyone who is caught in a domestic situation where there is abuse, must have the opportunity to be successful and have a good quality of life. If paid domestic violence leave saves one life in Nunavut it will be worth it.
For years we have heard from our elected officials, over and over, that dealing with domestic violence is important to them. We are giving them the opportunity now to put their money where their mouth is.
We need action. Pretty words are not keeping women safe, they are not keeping people safe in domestic relationships. They are not putting food on the table. Our members’ kids are going to school hungry, they are going to bed hungry. Parents are struggling, our workers are struggling to put a roof over their head. Our members are working hard and we have to make sure that our employers are respecting them.
That is a most important priority for us in 2022.
Another important priority in the new year for the members that I represent is talking to the members, making sure that I have opportunities to share stories with them and to hear their stories. We have to hear and have real connections with the members, so that when I have opportunities to represent them with the government or the media I know exactly what they feel and what to say.
We are going to be in constant communication with our members. This is a commitment I made three months ago when I was elected. This means sending mass emails to all our members, putting posts on our social media and website, tips to get through the pandemic, check-ins, etc. We have courses coming up, — talking union basics, introduction to unions, understanding your collective agreement. We need to have the most updated contact information for our members so that if we need to mobilize them on short notice or need to send them an important message we can do it.
We will be pushing all the employers in Nunavut to fill vacant positions.
Another priority is making sure that employers meet our health and safety concerns.
Because of COVID-19, the price of groceries has gone up. For example, farmers are struggling. This means that the price of meat and dairy has gone up. Besides, a lot of our foods are flown in or brought by boat during the summer so we always have to pay extra freight and shipping costs and the cost of groceries here is very high. The pandemic is affecting the cost of living directly and indirectly. Our GN workers, for example, receive the Nunavut Northern Allowance on top of their hourly wage to compensate for the high cost of living, but our employer has put a freeze on it for 12 years. We know that the cost of groceries and the cost of living has gone way up in the last 12 years. They know that as well, but they are refusing to do anything about it. They need to step up, in a much better way.
So those are our and my main priorities as the President of the Nunavut Employees Union for 2022. Our workers need to be treated with the respect they deserve.
1. The Nunavut Northern Allowance (NNA) is a benefit paid to government employees designed to make up for the difference in the cost of living between Nunavut and designated southern centres and to equalize the compensation of employees across Nunavut who face different economic conditions.
(Workers’ Forum, posted January 28, 2022)