The Union of Northern Workers has begun negotiations on a new collective agreement for Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) employees.

The two bargaining teams met earlier on Thursday. In a brief statement, the union (UNW) said two days of meetings this week will see both sides “exchange proposals”.

The current agreement, which was ratified in June 2012, expires on March 31 this year.

Read: UNW’s GNWT bargaining update page

In full: Current GNWT collective agreement

The GNWT emphasized “fiscal sustainability” as it began the last collective bargaining sessions in late 2011, and – with the territory’s financial fortunes no better now – that remains a theme.

“The Northwest Territories is facing a range of economic challenges which continue to affect the GNWT,” said Robert C McLeod, chair of the territory’s Financial Management Board, in a statement issued later on Thursday.

“We need to find a balance between investing in our public service and being financially responsible. The government’s goal is to ensure fair compensation for employees and, at the same time, to deliver on our overall fiscal responsibility and our commitment to the priorities of the government and NWT residents.”

The GNWT says negotiations will continue on January 25.

In full: GNWT’s bargaining update page

Concerns were voiced in the legislature last year that the territorial government could be preparing to make cuts, in keeping with a fiscal outlook portrayed by ministers as ‘bleak’.

The UNW, which represents around 4,000 government employees, told Moose FM it will have more information at the close of this week’s meetings.

The union drew some ire during last fall’s territorial election campaign when it sent a pointed survey to candidates, threatening to issue an ‘F’ grade if they failed to oppose GNWT job cuts.

Forty-one of the 60 candidates were duly handed an ‘F’, though many had simply ignored the survey entirely.

The full question, clearly worded with collective bargaining in mind, read: “Will you oppose any cuts of GNWT staff, including boards and agencies?”

Glen Abernethy – since re-elected and now the minister of human resources, with responsibility for collective bargaining – replied at length to the union’s question at the time.

“I oppose cutting positions as a means of controlling budgets,” he wrote to UNW President Todd Parsons in November.

“However, to request that I ‘oppose any cuts of GNWT staff, including boards and agencies’ is impractical. There has never been a budget by the GNWT where some positions have not been eliminated.”

Abernethy argued that changes to third-party funding and reviews of programs which no longer met their original intent were situations which could reasonably lead to positions being cut.

“If re-elected,” he pledged at the time, “I commit to a continual review of programs and services to ensure that they are meeting their original intent and the needs and desires of NWT residents.

“Where programs are no longer effective I will work with members of the Legislative Assembly to develop options to revitalize the program or remove it when it is longer relevant.

“If a program is removed I will ensure that the staff are adequately advised and that options for continued employment are explored and offered where possible.”

In full: UNW’s ‘Election Report Card’ results

Other Yellowknife and Hay River candidates who were later elected responded as follows:

Seven MLAs – Caroline Cochrane-Johnson, Julie Green, Bob McLeod, Kevin O’Reilly, Rocky Simpson, Kieron Testart and Cory Vanthuyne – did not offer a direct response to the question at the time.

Wally Schumann answered ‘no’, suggesting he would not automatically oppose staff cuts.

Tom Beaulieu answered ‘yes’, promising to oppose any planned cuts.