New Brunswick

Labour leaders vow to fight bill on essential services in nursing homes

Public-sector labour leaders are vowing to fight the Higgs government's new bill on essential services in nursing homes, calling it the latest attack on their right to collective bargaining.

Proposed amendments are a 'direct assault' on collective bargaining rights, they say

Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union (left), Sharon Teare, of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Homes, and Brien Watson, president of CUPE NB, held a news conference Thursday morning in Fredericton. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Public-sector labour leaders are vowing to fight the Higgs government's new bill on essential services in nursing homes, calling it the latest attack on their right to collective bargaining.

Sharon Teare of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Homes says the proposed amendments introduced Tuesday don't fix the constitutional flaws in the existing law and will make it even harder to recruit new employees to fill staffing shortages.

"The proposed amendments will worsen the situation deeply," Teare said at a morning news conference Thursday.

She was joined by New Brunswick Nurses Union president Paula Doucet, who said her union will join the fight because the bill puts 425 registered nurses working in nursing homes under the essential-services law for the first time.

That means they'll now be subject to the same binding-arbitration clause that says an arbitrator must take into account the government's ability to pay.

In some cases, the lone registered nurse in a small nursing home will lose her or his right to strike altogether, Doucet said.

"Implementation of these proposed amendments … would completely nullify the rights of long-term care registered nurses to bargain collectively and use a strike as a tool when bargaining breaks down."

Doucet said the government is making "an already desperate recruitment and retention situation even worse. … This is unnecessarily confrontational and it is a direct assault on our collective bargaining rights under the charter."

Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard said the bill complies with a court ruling and will bring clarity to contract negotiations between workers and the province.

"This is about getting designated levels, properly negotiated, through the labour board, with the union," she said. "This is about protecting the residents in our nursing homes. None of us should get off easy in negotiating." 

But Danny Legere, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, said the bill is part of a general anti-labour approach by the Progressive Conservatives.

He said his organization has called all public-sector union leaders into their first meetings in 15 years to build a united front.

Danny Légère, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, said he's worried, given the government's 'extreme' use of a notwithstanding clause in a vaccination bill. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"We don't feel this is an isolated way of dealing with one set of negotiations," he said. "Our concern is certainly that this will become a pattern for this government.

"The last few governments, we haven't seen this level of interference with the free collective bargaining process." He said the government's use of the notwithstanding clause in a vaccination bill was a worrying sign.

"If they're prepared to go to that extreme on vaccinations, how far are they prepared to go on free collective bargaining in New Brunswick?"

Urge MLAs to defeat bill

Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard introduced the essential-service amendments on Tuesday. They're designed to fix elements of the law that led the Labour and Employment Board and two courts to strike it down as unconstitutional.

Those rulings found that a decision declaring 90 per cent of workers in one home as essential effectively took away their right to strike because there was no route to binding arbitration to balance the loss of union leverage.

A stay on the impact of that decision expires Jan. 2, which means the minority government must get the amendments passed before the legislature's Christmas break.

In May, opposition MLAs from three parties voted together to pass a motion calling on the government to move to unrestricted binding arbitration in the wage dispute with nursing home workers.

Teare said now that the government is trying to put limits on binding arbitration, those MLAs should stand by their vote in May and defeat the bill.

Adds 'barriers'

The legislation adds a new process for determining how many workers in each nursing home should be declared essential and unable to strike. It also adds binding arbitration, but says an arbitrator must consider the government's ability to pay in deciding on wages.

Teare said that will "steer the arbitrator's decision toward wage and working condition restraints."

She also said the new process for setting essential-services levels is cumbersome and bureaucratic.

"When it comes to limiting workers' rights, these [Progressive] Conservatives have a love affair with red tape," she said.

"There's a lot of obstacles that are actually put in place here. More than just the violation of the rights, they put barriers in there to us actually achieving a free collective agreement."

Teare wouldn't discuss what will happen Jan. 3 if the amendments aren't passed. She wouldn't say whether a new strike vote will be required by nursing-home workers.

Contract expired in 2016

The workers have been without a contract since 2016. Technically, each nursing home is as separate employer and deals with its own union.

But the unions operate under the umbrella of the council, and the bargaining position of the 51 non-profit nursing homes is set by the provincial government that funds them.

Another public-sector union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1190, is now preparing to hold a strike vote after failing to get a new contract since 2017. The dispute is mainly over pay and benefits for casual employees in the union.

Local 1190 represents a range of workers in six government departments, from snowplow operators to musicians at provincial tourist sites such as Kings Landing.

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