New Brunswick

Employees could be forced back to work if strike hurts N.B. health care, Higgs says

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says his government could force employees back to work if a public-sector strike that began Friday morning hurts health care.

Talks with union representing 22,000 workers broke down earlier this week over wages

Premier Blaine Higgs says his government could use the emergency order to force striking employees back to work if the strike impacts health-care services. (Government of New Brunswick)

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says his government could force employees back to work if a public-sector strike that began Friday morning hurts health care.

The state of emergency that exists because of the COVID-19 pandemic would allow the province to order employees back, Higgs told a news conference Friday afternoon.

"If the health-care system is impacted, or if the health and safety of our citizens are at risk or jeopardized in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of an emergency order, then we could have an action directly as a result of being in an emergency order in the province," he said.

"And that would necessitate an end to the strike in those categories."

Higgs's comments came hours after thousands of members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees went on strike.

Schools stayed closed as bus drivers, custodians and maintenance workers didn't show up for work.

Workers from other union locals, which include provincial park staff, education assistants, social workers and community college employees also went on strike.

Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees on Mountain Road in Moncton are seen during the strike action that began Friday morning in New Brunswick. (Shane Magee/CBC)

Higgs did not elaborate on how the strike could potentially affect the health-care system, but he said the Department of Health and regional health authorities have come up with contingency plans in the event that "labour disruptions target health-care services."

"Strike action targeting COVID-19 services would result in significant reductions in the health system's capacity to provide key services such as PCR testing, vaccination, laboratory services and screening services at hospitals."

Earlier this week, CUPE, which represents about 22,000 workers who are in a legal strike position, said a strike was "imminent" after talks broke down with the province this week over wage increases.

CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost said Friday unionized workers from seven locals had started picketing at various high-traffic locations in most communities throughout the province, but not at any schools or government buildings.

CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost said the strike won't have any impact on the province's health-care system. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

In an interview with CBC News following the news conference, Drost called the idea that the strike could affect the health-care system a "misnomer."

Drost said that at the beginning of the bargaining process, both parties agreed to a certain number of "designated positions" to ensure the safety, security and health of the public in the event of a job action.

"So there are essential services and we have a … number of employees that would have to remain on the job to ensure that, you know, the safety and security of the public is protected during job action," he said.

Higgs stands by offer

At the news conference, Higgs said the province was standing by the offer it made to CUPE employees, adding that it provides for fair wage increases while also considering the impact on taxpayers.

Higgs said the province's last offer included wage increases totalling 8½ per cent over five years, and CUPE wanted increases totalling 12 per cent over that time period.

Higgs said the government's wage proposal would cost the province about $65 million annually, and CUPE's request would cost about $100 million.

"We're willing and open to demonstrating our commitment to these employees by providing fair wage increases," Higgs said, adding that the wages already provided are typically higher than what's paid in the private sector. 

"We also must recognize the impact this has on taxpayers. We also must recognize what the future looks like beyond just this year."

Aside from potentially relying on the province's emergency order to force employees back to work, Higgs said his government would also turn to back-to-work legislation if the strike created "undue hardship" in aspects of life other than health care.

"That is not a preferred direction. We have offered a fair package to the employees," Higgs said.

'Underpaid, undervalued,' union says

Drost said the workers who went on strike did not make the decision to do so lightly.

They've been without a fair wage increase for the last 15 to 20 years, he said.

"Their working conditions are not great," Drost said.

"They were in a crisis before the pandemic. These workers have been underpaid, undervalued and under-resourced for years, and they've reached a tipping point."

Online learning to start Monday

All students in New Brunswick will be learning from home starting Monday and should expect to continue to do so until the strike has ended, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said at the government news conference.

"We are going to be able to move quickly to allow online learning starting in our province's schools starting on Monday," Cardy said.

"But I cannot pass up this opportunity to express my disappointment that CUPE's leadership would choose to further disrupt the education of N.B.'s students at a time of global crisis."

Cardy, in an interview earlier Friday, said parents scrambled in the morning because CUPE did not notify the government properly about when the strike was going to happen.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said all students in New Brunswick will move to distance learning on Monday and continue to do so until the strike is over. (Government of New Brunswick)

But Drost said the union sent notice to the minister at 11:39 p.m. on Thursday.

"We gave them advanced notice last night," he told Information Morning Moncton.

He said the union did not put out a public notice Thursday night because it's the province's responsibility.

Cardy, who was also part of the Friday afternoon news conference, said students will learn from home starting on Monday, and continue for as long as the strike lasts.

Strike likely continuing into next week

Drost said the strike will "most likely" extend to Monday.

"I can't confirm any of the details of the plan. I'm not given that permission. We have 10 locals. They have their autonomy." 

Members of CUPE picket on Mountain Road in Moncton. (Shane Magee/CBC)

He said parents who are frustrated by the strike should keep in mind the striking workers are also parents.

"They get it. They, too, are extremely tired and anxious and have had to work through this entire pandemic."

Some of the locals involved and some of their workers include:

  • Local 1190: Provincial park workers, road crews, plow drivers and mechanics.
  • Local 1253: School district custodians, maintenance workers and bus drivers. 
  • Local 2745: Educational support staff such as educational assistants, administrative assistants, school intervention workers, student attendants and library workers.
  • Local 1418: Social workers, probation and parole officers, human resource development officers, correctional programmers, clinical psychologists, recreation and culture program officers.
  • Local 5017: Community colleges.

School districts have advised parents to keep students home today while staff report to school.

Cardy previously sent a letter asking parents to keep an eye on their email in case they have to pick up their children in the event of a strike. 

Back-to-work legislation on the table

Drost said workers are prepared to stay out "as long as it takes" and that back-to-work legislation would amount to "being bullied."

He said the union is asking for pay that's above the cost of living. Canada's inflation rate is 4.4 per cent.

Higgs said the government had offered the workers more than what other unions settled for, but the proposed increase was rejected. The current offer has the same wage package, with its lower wage increase, that others have already accepted.

Premier Blaine Higgs says he's willing to invoke back-to-work legislation. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"In an effort to try to settle this and not have a strike, we actually went higher … They turned it down."

On Friday, People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin urged both sides to come back to the table.

"I believe it's possible for this labour dispute to be resolved but that's not going to happen unless both the government and the union are both willing to return to negotiations and come to an agreement which is fair for everyone," he said in a news release.

With files from Jennifer Sweet, Information Morning Saint John, Fredericton, Moncton