New Brunswick

CUPE says strike 'imminent,' but N.B. premier says he'll use legal powers to stop it

Unionized public-sector workers say the Higgs government is forcing them into a strike by walking away from contract negotiations.

10 locals representing more than 22,000 workers in legal strike position

CUPE New Brunswick president Steve Drost says strike could happen 'at any minute.' (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Unionized public-sector workers say the Higgs government is forcing them into a strike by walking away from contract negotiations Tuesday night.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees says it "clearly demonstrated movement" on its wage demands during three days of bargaining but the province ended the talks.

CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost told a Wednesday morning news conference in Fredericton that a strike is "imminent."

"It could happen at any minute," he said. The union's spokesperson Simon Ouellette said a walkout was possible "within days."

Drost was flanked by members of the bargaining team. They and other CUPE officials and members chanted "Solidarity" as the news conference wrapped up.

Union officials chant 'so-so-so-solidarity!' after a news conference Wednesday morning. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs responded within an hour, telling reporters that he'll use back-to-work legislation or the province's COVID-19 emergency order to prevent a strike affecting hospitals or schools.

"I would use whatever means I have in order to protect and limit the impact on the citizens of this province, especially when we are in the pandemic and we have an emergency order in place," he said. 

Back-to-work legislation could be introduced as early as next Tuesday when the new session of the legislature begins.

The province's Emergency Measures Act also allows the cabinet to "provide for the maintenance and restoration of essential facilities" during a state of emergency like the one now in place for COVID-19.

Higgs said which legal tool he uses will depend on the circumstances.

"I won't prescribe one or the other." 

Thousands of workers voted for strike

Ten locals representing more than 22,000 workers are now in a legal strike position. 

They include workers in the health care, education, transportation and agricultural sectors, as well as social workers, jail guards, court stenographers, and staff at WorkSafeNB and the New Brunswick community colleges.

Ouellette confirmed the N.B. Liquor CUPE local is not among the 10 who voted to strike.

CUPE says its negotiators offered to accept annual wage increases of three per cent over four years. The union had been looking for five per cent increases. The union notice says the province was offering two per cent annual raises over five years.

The province refused to give up demands for concessions on pensions, CUPE says.

Negotiations resumed Sunday with the help of a mediator.

"We were prepared to resolve this" during the talks, Drost said. "We moved significantly."

Higgs said the province improved its offer Tuesday to try to head off a strike but "it obviously isn't good enough and we certainly got the impression with CUPE, with the leadership, that it's never good enough." 

He said that offer is now off the table and the province has nothing else to propose. "We're not going higher." 

The province wants to add two CUPE pension plans into its shared-risk plan and in return would add some workers without any pension into the system.

In September Higgs said the union's wage demands were unaffordable. But CUPE said a fiscal update earlier this month projecting a $38 million surplus this year shows there's enough money to pay for the wage hike it wants.

The union says the new two per cent offer from the province is still not enough to match the cost of living, never mind catch up with years of below-inflation raises. 

"Our members are the lowest paid of the lowest paid," Drost said. "No good employer would continue to pay their workers less and less every year for 15 or 20 years."

Higgs acknowledged Wednesday that second-quarter numbers suggest this year's surplus will now be "significantly better" than the $38-million figure.

But he said it would be wrong to agree to large wage increases that may not be affordable in future years.

"I didn't come here to create more liability for the province," he said.

Opposition calls premier the 'problem'

Opposition Liberal Leader Roger Melanson accused Higgs of using COVID-19 to create a labour crisis and urged the premier to let government negotiators reach a deal.

"The problem right now is the premier himself." 

Melanson sits on an all-party COVID committee set up to provide checks and balances for the province's emergency powers, which he said is there to enforce public health measures, not resolve labour disputes.

If the premier uses the emergency order to stop the strike, "I'm going to ask myself some very serious questions for sure."

Melanson wouldn't say if the Liberals would use procedural rules to slow down a back-to-work bill in the legislature.

"We'll do what we have to do," he said.

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