New Brunswick

Premier promises nursing home workers a new wage proposal they won't like

Premier Blaine Higgs says he will have a new offer to nursing home workers who’ve been negotiating their pay for years, but says the union won’t like it.

Offer will be presented this week or next and will be 'final,' premier says

CUPE supporters carried cardboard cutouts of MLAs to re-enact a legislature vote in May that sided with the workers' desire to have binding arbitration. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs says he will have a new offer for nursing home workers who've been trying for years to get a wage  increase, but he expects the union won't like it.

"Right up front, it's not going to be what they want," Higgs told reporters at a news conference Tuesday in Fredericton. "It's going to be, you know, we need to find money in the system."

Higgs said he'll be presenting the offer this week or next. Contract talks have been going on between the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes and the union representing nursing home workers since the last agreement expired in 2016. 

The talks broke down and a strike vote was held in March. Workers haven't been able to strike because of back-to-back court challenges. 

The province is appealing a lower court decision from July in favour of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Court of Queen's Bench Justice Tracey DeWare ruled the province's Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act was unconstitutional, upholding a December 2018 labour board decision.

Premier Blaine Higgs addresses reporters Tuesday in Fredericton. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The province appealed, arguing DeWare made multiple errors in law. The arguments will be heard in late October.

 After spending weeks in talks, with the provincial government at the table, the parties haven't come close to reaching an agreement on wage increases.

CUPE represents the 4,100 workers, who include licensed practical nurses, resident attendants, support service workers such as dietary and laundry workers and some clerical workers.

The union wants a 20 per cent wage increase over four years. The government has limited wage increases to one per cent a year for the public sector, or about 10 cents an hour.

Higgs said the province's offer to nursing home workers will be the final one.

"It essentially will be [final] because it's, you know, we've put others and they flat out reject them," he said. "I think this one needs to go to the membership and be voted."  

Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, demonstrators outside the legislature Tuesday. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

In response to this comment, Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, said the membership has always dictated what the union does, not the other way around. 

On the same day Higgs made the remarks, CUPE supporters were demonstrating outside the legislature. Carrying cardboard cutouts of each MLA, demonstrators re-enacted a legislature vote in May that sided with the workers' call for binding arbitration.

Teare, who was among the demonstrators, called Higgs's comments "disappointing."

"It's unfortunate that he senses that it's not ... something that we're going to like. So, obviously, is it a waste of time?"  

In May, a motion by the Opposition Liberals supporting the nursing home workers' call for binding arbitration was backed by two People's Alliance MLAs and three Greens. The motion was symbolic but CUPE wants Premier Blaine Higgs to honour it. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The government has said it will only support binding arbitration under the condition the arbitrator consider the wage increases already negotiated with its other unionized employees. The union has rejected this approach, saying it wouldn't amount to binding arbitration. 

In May, MLAs approved a symbolic motion calling for binding arbitration, and on Tuesday CUPE demonstrators said the Higgs government is not honouring this vote.

Higgs said what he's telling nursing home workers is the same thing he's telling everyone else: the resources are too limited.

Because of the financial challenges, this "can't be a typical union-management relationship," he said. "This has to be a team."

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