New Brunswick

Final offer from province still not enough, nursing home union says

Unionized nursing home workers are inching closer to a showdown with New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government following what's been called a final offer from the province.

Union leaders expect wage proposal will be rejected by members, prolonging the dispute

CUPE officials Roland Cormier, right, and Patrick Roy, who said the new offer still isn't enough to recruit new employees and reduce chronic shortages. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Unionized nursing home workers are inching closer to a showdown with New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government following a final offer from the province.

Officials from the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions took the unusual step Friday morning of sharing  details of the government offer with reporters.

Under the law, if the province declares it a final offer, it must go to members for a vote.

The union leaders say they'll comply but they predicted the wage increases will be rejected by members, prolonging the dispute.

Patrick Roy, the provincial co-ordinator for nursing home workers at the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said the package is still not enough to recruit new employees and reduce chronic shortages.

"We've got a bunch of employees that are overworked," he said. "They're working short. They're working overtime through the roof. … Every home pretty well works short every single day, every shift."

Higgs responded at his own news conference, vowing to work with the union to address those issues but asserting that wage increases aren't the only way to do it.

He said high sick-day numbers are "an indication of the conditions at work" in nursing homes.

"I want to work with them to fix those conditions. … We know they work hard. No one has ever questioned that and we don't question that." 

Premier Blaine Higgs said he wants to work with the union but the final offer is "fair and reasonable." (CBC)

But, he said, "this final offer is fair and reasonable and it is affordable for New Brunswick taxpayers." 

The offer is for wage increases over four years of one, 1.25, 1.5 and 1.75 per cent. Last year members rejected a tentative agreement with annual increases of one percent each year for four years. 

But the offer also includes a demand that workers give up two sick days per year as a tradeoff.

The union said it's looking for a three per cent increase in each of the four years of a contract.

Roy said the union was releasing the numbers because Higgs has been negotiating through the media, something the two sides had agreed not to do.

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

Earlier this week, Higgs confirmed a new offer was coming but said it would fall short of union demands.

"Right up front, it's not going to be what they want," he said Tuesday.

The fact the offer would include a wage increase was leaked to another media organization late on Thursday, prompting Friday morning's news conference by the union.

Responding two hours later, Higgs again accused CUPE of seeking wage increases designed to set a precedent for other public-sector bargaining units in the province. He said if they all won the same raises, it would cost the government $300 million a year. 

"That kind of a bill would almost certainly lead to tax increases or service reductions or a combination of both," he said.

The Employment and Labour Board will oversee the voting on the offer, and it will happen in individual nursing homes at different times. Higgs said he hopes that can be wrapped up within two months.

The premier wouldn't say what will happen if the offer is rejected. He said he has faith that rank-and-file nursing home workers will approve it.

"I'm not going to pre-suppose what happens. I don't believe the average worker in a nursing home is out shaking their fist."

The union says it's prepared to wait out the premier and intervene in an upcoming byelection that he must call within six months.

The riding of St. Croix is vacant following the death of cabinet minister Greg Thompson.

Cormier, the union first vice-president, spoke at the CUPE news conference on Friday morning. (CBC)

"We can't wait to see that clock run out in Charlotte County because we'll certainly be in Charlotte County to ask the Tory candidate what he thinks of the nursing home workers in his riding that he or she would be representing," said union first vice-president Roland Cormier.

Higgs's PC party has 21 seats in the legislature and the Liberals have 19, not including Speaker Daniel Guitard. A byelection will also be due in Shediac Bay-Dieppe following the resignation of former premier Brian Gallant.

"We're willing to wait out the premier on that [St. Croix] byelection, and we can count, and he can count too," Cormier said. "If he loses that byelection, we can count as well. His government could fall."

Nursing home workers have been without a contract since 2016. The legislature passed a law in 2009 declaring most nursing home workers essential, meaning they were not allowed to strike.

But the union challenged the law's constitutionality, and in July a Court of Queen's Bench judge upheld a labour ruling that the law was unconstitutional.

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal will hear the province's appeal of the decision Oct. 29.

The July ruling doesn't take effect until January so the workers can't strike until then, giving the government time to introduce a modified law on essential workers in nursing homes.

Higgs said the government is drafting such a bill.

But it's not clear the PCs would be able to get it passed. The party doesn't have a majority in the house, and MLAs from the three opposition parties passed a symbolic motion in May calling for binding arbitration.

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