New Brunswick

Hundreds of nursing home workers, supporters demonstrate

Hundreds of nursing home workers and supporters took advantage of Tuesday's budget announcement to make sure their dissatisfaction with contract negotiations are heard.

'The care is not there because the people aren't there,' union president says

One demonstrator banged bedpans together at the CUPE rally in front of the New Brunswick Legislature on Tuesday. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Hundreds of nursing home workers and supporters took advantage of Tuesday's budget announcement to make sure their dissatisfaction with contract negotiations was heard.

At least six buses from all over the province carried supporters to Fredericton, where they rallied in front of the New Brunswick Legislature.

CUPE nursing home workers have been negotiating a contract since 2016. Two weeks ago workers voted to in favour of a strike and gave strike notice, but were stopped by a judicial stay asked for by the province.

On Monday, a judge overruled that stay, but it was reinstated by a second judge four hours later.

Hundreds crowded the steps of the legislative building to hear speeches by union leaders, as well as Premier Blaine Higgs, who asked to say a few words. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

On Tuesday, workers cheered for better wages and showed their anger with the way the province has handled negotiations.

The contract dispute affects about 4,100 licensed practical nurses, resident attendants, dietary and laundry workers and some clerical workers at 46 nursing homes. They have been working without a contract since 2016.

At around 12:45 p.m. Premier Blaine Higgs asked to speak at the rally. He was almost drowned out by boos and noise makers.

"We can scream at each other all we want," he told the crowd. "But at the end of the day we have real issues that we have to fix.

"That is going to be our challenge."

Speaking to Sharon Teare, the president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, Higgs said the province is willing to negotiate, but he was met with loud boos. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Turning directly to Sharon Teare, the president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, Higgs appeared to try a conciliatory approach, suggesting this was the time to discuss ideas she'd proposed in the past.

Teare told him she was disappointed he was taking the contract negotiations to court, a reference to the hearings this week involving the union's right to strike.

After the rally, Teare said CUPE is willing to go back to the bargaining table tomorrow.

Reaction to budget

While the rally was going on, Higgs's minority government released its first budget.

The Department of Social Development, which is responsible for nursing homes, is getting a small funding increase of 0.5 per cent.

The overall budget sets aside funding for wage increases for 18 union contracts that have expired or are expiring, but there's no word if that includes extra money to reach an agreement with nursing home workers.

At the rally, people said they weren't happy with the proposed budget, which they believe won't cover the wage increases they're looking for.

"We're not standing here saying money money money," Teare said. "We're asking for what ... we have compromised over the years, that we have carried on our backs.

"When [we] say balancing the budget on the backs of nursing home workers, well, I'm going to tell you, nursing home workers, their backs are broken."

Nursing home workers briefly regained the right to strike Monday, before the province went to the Court of Appeal and won a stay that will last until Thursday, at least. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

CUPE president Daniel Legere, told demonstrators the government was not budgeting for wage increases higher than the increase in the cost of living.

Marc Cayouette, a resident attendant, came all the way from Dalhousie to attend the demonstration.

"Our seniors, it's them that built what we have today with a pick and a shovel and coal," he said. "We can't provide the quality of care that we should be giving to them."

Another court hearing

Meanwhile, at around 3 p.m. Tuesday, lawyers for the provincial government and union were in court again in Moncton.

The province asked the court to speed up a judicial review of a labour board decision that's allowing CUPE to go on strike. The union was opposed.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice David Smith denied the province's request. He's the same judge who originally granted the province the 10-day stay.

That stay and the one granted Monday apply to a labour board ruling last year that said a provincial law designating nursing home workers essential was unconstitutional. The province wants the labour ruling stayed until a judicial review.

Some demonstrators were angry about how the province handled the contract negotiations with nursing home workers who are members of CUPE. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

CUPE lawyer Jöel Michaud called the province's bid for an early review "a manoeuvre … by the attorney general to try to get another kick at the can" at staying the labour board ruling. 

Government lawyer Christian Michaud said he wanted to speed up the review because he wanted to save money and time.

The province and CUPE lawyers will be going head-to-head at the judicial review on May 24 in Moncton.

'Sinful'

The workers have been trying to win a collective agreement with a more substantial pay increase than the roughly one per cent a year offered by the government. They say better wages would help nursing homes attract and keep workers.

Speaking to Information Morning Fredericton before the rally, Teare said Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard's comfort with staffing levels in nursing homes is "sinful.

"The staffing ratios and the care that's there now is, it's the dirty things that the employers don't want you to talk about," Teare said.

"But the reality of it is that you know the care is not there because the people aren't there."

But Shephard has said the difficulty finding workers isn't peculiar to nursing homes.

And in an interview about what the budget had in store for her department, Shephard said she was "fairly comfortable" with staffing levels at nursing homes.

Demonstrators came on buses from all over the province to stand in protest outside the New Brunswick Legislature. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Teare said the union doesn't feel respected by the government.

"We're hearing more from media about what the government is thinking and feeling than we are at the table … that itself is frustrating."

No appetite for strike

On Monday, the nursing home workers regained the right to strike after Justice Paulette Garnett of the Court of Queen's Bench refused to extend a stay obtained 10 days earlier by the province.

Within hours the province received another stay, this time only until Thursday, when Justice Raymond French of the Court of Appeal will review the province's application for leave to appeal Garnett's order.

The contract between nursing home workers and nursing homes expired in 2016. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

The government's lawyer, Christian Michaud, said an essential-services designation would allow nursing home workers to go on strike "in an orderly fashion that takes into account the interests of the residents."

Under the plans for one home, York Care Centre in Fredericton, 90 per cent of staff would have been declared essential and unable to strike. This was the case that triggered the labour board ruling.   

Binding arbitration?

Teare said the option of binding arbitration had been discussed with the previous Liberal government, but the talks were only preliminary. 

Binding arbitration has not been brought to the table by either party in this round of negotiations, which came to a stop last week before the court hearings on the stay.

Whether the union would support the binding-arbitration route would depend on what the province brings forward next and how it acts, Teare said.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton and Shane Magee

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