Labour Views: The Value of a Good Worker

Dec 07, 2022

Costs are rising sharply these days, but one thing that isn't rising is the wages workers need to keep up with those increases. If wages rose at the same pace as inflation, we could handle the increases.

Inflation and shortages are making life more expensive for workers and employers. In recent news stories and opinion pieces, private and public sector employers have stressed the lack of available workers.

If employers want to attract and keep workers to ensure their organization runs smoothly, they need to show those workers they are appreciated and valued. The most direct and effective way to do that is to offer them a fair living wage and good benefits.

With the GNWT threatening to cut many Northerners out of the Extended Healthcare Benefits policy, being able to afford private coverage – or having your employer provide it – isn’t just a “perk” anymore, it will be a necessity for many.

Some employers (both private and public) claim that fair wages and benefits are too expensive, and they’re barely keeping their organization afloat as it is. Employers need to remember that an organization requires workers to keep things running – no workers, no organization.

Threatening layoffs or reductions in services if workers “get too greedy” is moral blackmail. Workers should never be pressured to sacrifice their own quality of life for their employer’s profit and priorities. And employers are often all too willing to scapegoat their workers when staffing shortages mean they can’t provide the goods or services people are used to.

Labour organizations are seeing this happen across the North right now, with many bargaining units sitting across from employers who are threatening concessions instead of offering incentives.

Concessions are when an employer wants a bargaining team to agree to give up something that has previously been earned and negotiated. I promise you, taking things away from your employees will not entice them to stick around, nor will it attract new and talented workers.

One of the most notorious concessions in the UNW’s history was the introduction of “Donny Days” in the mid-1990s. These were five mandatory days off with no pay, named after then-premier Don Morin.

The government gaslighted everyone by promoting the wage cut as a benefit – workers would have more time over the holidays to spend with their families or travel, and the government could balance their budget. Win-win, right?

WRONG! Make no mistake, this was a wage cut (-1.92% every pay cheque) spread out over 52 weeks of pay, which allowed the employer to give the impression of softening the blow. If workers had seen five days of pay come off their cheques every December, it would have been clear how much of a hit they were taking. 

Unionized workers knew it was a concession and, in subsequent rounds of bargaining, fought successfully to turn those days into an actual benefit of paid leave.

Now, it is actually a win-win. The GNWT gets to advertise themselves as a “Top” employer, using mandatory leave days to attract and retain workers.

Over the past year, in a bid to attract and retain public sector workers while maintaining a balanced budget, suggestions of a four-day workweek in exchange for a wage-freeze have occasionally been floated in the Ledge.

While the idea of a four-day workweek is generally considered a positive step toward work-life balance and could be an effective strategy for addressing some of the GNWT’s recruitment and retention issues, the thought of it being a “Donny Days 2.0” is concerning and will do the exact opposite for recruitment and retention. I hope that the current Premier would not want her name attached to another notorious concession.

Cutting back hours, laying off workers, reducing benefits, and refusing to increase wages may appear to save an employer money in the short term, but it tells workers that they are expendable, and not worth the investment. These concessions always cost the employer and the workplace more in the end.

This lack of foresight is starting to hit home. Recent articles and editorials about staffing shortages across all sectors show us that after decades of employers cutting costs on the backs of workers, they're running out of people willing to do the work. Turns out, workers aren't so expendable after all. 

And workers are now in the position of power – with plenty of available jobs out there, they don’t have to stick around with an employer that does not value them.

Instead of reducing services or bailing out businesses who can’t keep workers, governments need to promote an economy where workers are paid fairly for the work they do. Fair wages, benefits, and job security give workers the spending power to sustain local economies and support the small businesses and organizations in our communities.