by Nancy Gardiner
Northern News Services
NNSL (Feb 10/97) - The Native Communications Society of the Western Arctic isn't what it used to be.
Management says a smaller staff - down from 17 to 13 - and a new mandate allow the oldest aboriginal broadcaster and publisher in the Western Arctic to better serve its Dene audience in an era of shrinking government support.
Former employees, however, charge that there are still major management problems and that recent layoffs are evidence of a union-busting strategy.
Three employees finished their last working day Jan. 31. They were all given two-week notices. A fourth has until March before her job disappears.
They aren't the only ones. Last December, two NCS newsroom employees did not have their contracts renewed.
Wayne Skrypnyk, staff representative for the United Steelworkers of America in Calgary, said he plans to meet with NCS employees in Yellowknife this week. He did not elaborate.
The union was certified late last month by the Canada Labor Relations Board to represent NCS employees.
But more layoffs are likely, due to "NCS's re-organization plan in keeping with its mandate of preserving aboriginal-language broadcasting," said executive director Barry Zellen.
Three or four employees in the television department may be laid off in anticipation of territorial core funding cuts by March 31, 1997, Zellen said.
According to Zellen, the re-structuring plan was brought on by a $100,000-deficit in the fall. He added that staff knew layoffs were coming.
The changes also follow directly on the adoption of an NCS mandate to provide a minimum of 75 per cent of all local broadcasting in aboriginal languages, Zellen said.
The first sign of trouble came immediately after the new mandate was announced last September. It meant an eventual end to English news production, and most of the staff staged a half-day walkout 24 hours later in protest.
However, former staff members contacted by the Yellowknifer contend there's more to it than that.
They say they believe the layoffs and non-renewal of contracts were the result of complaints the staff brought to the NCS board back in September prior to the half-day staff walkout.
In a letter released to the media on Sept. 16, 1996 more than a dozen staff members outlined their complaints, citing stress due to a lack of communication from the executive director, cramped quarters and equipment not maintained.
"We are suffering increased levels of stress and frustration in our current work environment," it said.
Some of those who signed the letter are now out of a job, although others are still working and the workplace has been unionized.
Craig Wallace, who worked as morning show host and production manager at the society's radio station, CKLB, for two and a half years, cleaned up his desk for the last time on Jan. 31.
He said he was given two weeks notice of his layoff. A lawyer is looking into the matter.
"The one good thing that could come of this - is that if NCS is to survive, it needs to be reviewed by someone outside the organization," Wallace said.
Former NCS news director Mark Dickey agrees: "I'd like to see a review by the funding agencies and an audit to see where the money is being spent."
Dickey was given one month's notice that his contract would not be renewed last December. He acknowledged that NCS has been having financial difficulties for years.
"The ROE (record of employment) states a layoff due to a lack of funds," said Dickey. He was also told it was due to re-structuring.
But Dickey argued that the people being laid off were "the main spokespeople for the union."
"The reason I believe for the layoffs was that we were unionizing and that obviously upset Barry (Zellen) and the board," Dickey said.
Zellen, however, pointed out that Dickey and Wallace's complaints were nothing new last fall, and added that NCS staff are well-compensated, including wages almost twice the private-sector rate.
For its part, the NCS board stands behind its director.
A Dec. 16, 1996 letter from chairman J.C. Catholique states: "We have unanimously endorsed the work of the executive director over the last two years; because of his work, we have seen much of NCS's debt eradicated and an increase in our operating budget at a time when other organizations have seen their budgets shrink."
Dickey is pursuing the matter through his union and personally as an "unjust dismissal."
Wallace plans to return to Northern Ontario in a month.
William Greenland, the third employee who finished on Jan. 31, said he's considering lodging a complaint of unfair labor practices regarding his layoff notice.