New Brunswick

Essential-services bill passes after boos rain down from gallery

The New Brunswick legislature shut down Friday for the Christmas break after a round of holiday cheer gave way to a final war of words over essential-services legislation.

Law will create new process for designating essential nursing home workers during contract dispute

Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, said CUPE would likely challenge the law in court. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The New Brunswick legislature shut down Friday for the Christmas break after a round of holiday cheer gave way to a final war of words over essential-services legislation.

The bill, which puts conditions on how a labour arbitrator can rule on the wages of nursing home workers, passed third and final reading 24-22. It later received royal assent from Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy.

Members of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions booed, jeered and loudly chanted "No Justice, No Peace" from the public gallery of the legislature, interrupting the first attempt to hold the vote.

Speaker Daniel Guitard stopped the voting and asked security staff to escort the union members out, but they chose to leave voluntarily. A few minutes later the vote took place.

CUPE reacts to bill

"I'm appalled at what happened in that house today," said Brien Watson, the New Brunswick president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. "I'm appalled at what happened to the workers of this province. … It's just despicable what happened in the house."

The law will put in place a new process for declaring nursing-home workers as essential during a labour dispute.

Union leaders say it will slow down the procedure, potentially for years, making it harder for the unions to strike.

Brien Watson, the New Brunswick president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, is appalled the legislature passed the essential-services bill on Friday. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Watson said CUPE would likely challenge the law in court.

"Our voices will not be silenced," said Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions.

"We are not and will not be defeated. Defeat is when you give up. We are nursing home workers, and we will not give up protecting our seniors on a daily basis while fighting for our rights for better working conditions."

Premier Blaine Higgs says he's still hoping to negotiate a new contract with the union and address some of the issues it's  been raising about working conditions and recruitment.

But he also made clear the bill's passage was a major win for his wish to keep a lid on public-sector wage increases. 

"I guess [the union] should think I'm serious," he said. "Anyone who thought I wasn't serious before will be thinking, 'No, I guess he's serious.'"

Higgs also said the behaviour of union members in the public gallery was outdated.

"It's really disappointing if, at this point in time, we're back in the sixties, shaking our fists and jumping up and down," he said.

The vote was a foregone conclusion after an eight-hour committee debate on Wednesday, but Liberal and Green MLAs put up a last fight Friday morning. 

After each party took turns at an annual legislature tradition, reciting adapted Christmas songs and poems good-naturedly poking fun at each other, the Liberals and Greens spent more than an hour criticizing Bill 17 as an attack on public-sector labour unions.

The existing law on essential services in nursing homes was struck down by a judge earlier this year. She upheld a labour board ruling that the law was too much of a limit on the right to strike.

The ruling came at the same time that the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions was poised to strike. They've been without a contract since 2016. 

The judge froze the effect of her ruling on hold for six months to give the government time to pass a better law. That deadline is Jan. 2.

The bill adds a binding arbitration process that requires the arbitrator to consider "the employer's ability to pay, in light of the fiscal situation of the Province."

On Wednesday, the government amended the bill to allow "any other factors that the arbitrator considers relevant" to be considered. That change won the support of the People's Alliance, whose three MLAs were crucial to getting the bill passed. 

Another contentious government bill was not passed before Friday's adjournment. 

Education Minister Dominic Cardy's legislation to tighten the province's mandatory vaccination rules for schoolchildren by eliminating religious and philosophical exemptions will have to come back for debate when the legislature resumes in March.

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