The Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation and its striking workers resumed negotiations in Ottawa Wednesday, beginning the thaw of an icy impasse that had lasted more than two weeks.
The meeting marked the first contact between the two negotiating teams since the union -Local 70396 of the Public Service Alliance of Canada - refused to put a Sept. 18 "final offer" from the Museum Corporation to a vote by its 420 members, who walked off the job three days later.
But substantial rifts still exist between the workers and the corporation, which manages both the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum, and goodwill appears to be in short supply.
A museum spokeswoman, Chantal Schryer, said a federal mediator originally invited the corporation and the union to a special meeting Friday, hoping to reignite talks. Schryer said that PSAC representatives first asked to have the meeting pushed back an hour, then announced that they would not be attending. Schryer said the response seemed odd, given that PSAC spokesmen had repeatedly emphasized the union's willingness to return to the negotiating table as soon as the management team would join them.
But Daniel Poulin, the PSAC local president, said the museum's version of events "is absolutely false." He claimed the union was not invited to a Friday meeting and that, had a meeting been called, "we would have been at the table."
Schryer countered that the museum is "an accountable institution. We would not say that if it was not true." A request to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada to have the federal mediator confirm or deny calling the meeting was not immediately granted.
The conflicting accounts are symptomatic of a labour dispute that, for a time, was a battle waged through press releases.
The union says it is seeking parity for its members with other museum workers in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, specifically in regard to salaries and the museum's right to contract out jobs.
Poulin claims that, despite being one of the region's more successful museums, its workers are underpaid compared to their counterparts, while they are losing jobs "left and right to outside contracts."
But Schryer said the Sept. 18 offer was "very, very good" and repeatedly reiterated the museum's desire to get back to "reasonable discussions." She said the museum has not contracted out any new jobs in years, and those that were contracted out are in specialized areas such as food services. She also said the museum offered increased job-security provisions in its Sept. 18 contract proposal, including promises to conduct any necessary layoffs by attrition, and with a recall list.
Salary increases also remain a major point of contention. The museum says it has offered an increase of between 12 and 17 per cent over four years, depending on the employee's status. But the union says the actual figure is more like 7 per cent over four years, because the museum numbers include annual "increases in scale" and boosts to the maximum pay in each range. Poulin said such increases have been in place for years and were not up for negotiation, and so shouldn't be counted.
The standstill also appears to have been exacerbated by conflicting views on who was trying to lure whom back to the bargaining table. More than one union member told The Globe and Mail they had seen senior executives from the museum telling picketers the union was refusing to negotiate, at the same time the union professed to be champing at the bit to get talks started again.
"I've seen it myself," Poulin said, adding that it was a member of the "very high management."
Said Schryer of the allegations: "I am not aware of any of that."