New Brunswick

Legislative committee passes essential-services bill after late-night sitting

One of the Higgs government's most contentious and consequential bills took a major step toward approval on Wednesday night.

Premier Blaine Higgs had said he'd call an election if the bill was defeated

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has been against altering a proposed provision requiring labour arbitrators to consider the government's ability to pay when deciding on wage increases. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

One of the Higgs government's most contentious and consequential bills took a major step toward approval on Wednesday night.

A committee of MLAs debated the Act to Amend the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act, legislation that will change the process for deciding which nursing home workers are allowed to go on strike.

The committee voted 6-5 on the bill, with committee chair and Progressive Conservative MLA Gary Crossman casting the deciding yes vote.

That makes it all but certain the bill will get final approval by Friday when the legislature adjourns for Christmas, well ahead of a Jan. 2 legal deadline.

Last week, Premier Blaine Higgs called the bill "a line in the sand" that he'd treat as a confidence measure, meaning he'd call an election if it went down to defeat. 

He said he'd do the same if opposition MLAs passed an amendment that would gut a key element of the bill — a provision that requires labour arbitrators to consider the government's ability to pay when deciding on wage increases.

"Would I accept an amendment to the bill that's being proposed?" Higgs said in Question Period Wednesday ahead of the committee debate. "Absolutely not."

Liberal and Green MLAs introduced four such amendments Wednesday evening but they were all defeated by the same 6-5 margin, with PC and People's Alliance members voting together to reject them.

'As fair, I believe, as it gets'

The Alliance came on board after Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard introduced a government amendment to make the bill palatable to the party, which was reluctant to support the "ability to pay" provision. 

The amendment by Shephard says an arbitrator can also consider "any other factors that the arbitrator considers relevant" when making a ruling on wage increases. 

That amendment also passed 6-5.

Liberal MLA Gilles LePage said the ability-to-pay provision creates a barrier to free negotiations between the nursing homes and unions. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

During a marathon question-and-answer session lasting most of the afternoon, Liberal MLA Gilles LePage said imposing the "ability to pay" provision will hamstring the ability of nursing homes and unions to negotiate freely.

He argued that both sides will know that if they can't make a deal and go to arbitration, the arbitrator will be forced to consider the ability to pay — an undefined consideration that the premier, minister of finance and minister of social development will influence when they set their budgets.

"This goes completely against negotiations in good faith that the minister wants us to believe is in this bill," he said, calling it "an order" from the province to the arbitrator. 

Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard said the amendment is 'as fair, I believe, as it gets.' (CBC)

But Shephard argued the provision could work in favour of the unions during prosperous times in the province. 

"This is as fair, I believe, as it gets," she said. 

She confirmed an arbitrator won't be able to ignore the ability-to-pay test and said "we are identifying the minimum we would want an arbitrator to look at."

"But in tabling the amendment today, we are giving an arbitrator the perspective of including any other relevant information that they deem necessary."

Existing law struck down

With the committee vote Wednesday night, the bill returns to the full legislature for third reading before the end of the week. But with the substantial debate and changes completed, that final step will be a formality.

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 New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions has been without a contract since 2016. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

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 for six months to give the government time to pass a better law. That deadline is Jan. 2.

The bill creates a new process for designating essential employees and adds a binding arbitration process.

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