Higgs confronted as nursing home workers deny 'impasse' in contract talks
Union accuses social development minister of making unilateral declaration without mediator or bargaining team
The union representing nursing home workers in contract talks with the New Brunswick government denies negotiations have reached an impasse, as announced by Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard on Tuesday night.
Shephard declared the impasse without being present at the table, and while the parties were still talking, according to Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Homes Unions.
"The workers' bargaining team and the mediator himself learned about an 'impasse' only through a media statement," Teare said in a news release Wednesday.
Although Shephard also said no further talks were scheduled, the appointed mediator has not declared an impasse or recommended a pause in talks, Teare said, accusing Shephard of ridiculing the workers.
Teare also confronted Premier Blaine Higgs on Wednesday afternoon about that point, calling him a liar during a media scrum at the New Brunswick legislature.
Higgs told reporters the union leaders said during negotiations, "We're done." That's when Teare cut off the premier and repeatedly said, "We did not say we were done."
"That's a lie," she added.
Nicolle Carlin, the premier's director of communications, stepped into between the two while Teare continued to make her point. Higgs stayed silent and, at Carlin's direction, turned around and walked into a nearby room.
"Listen to the workers that care for the people," Teare yelled as the premier walked away. "You keep shutting us out."
Teare then turned to reporters and said the miscommunication is a "stall tactic" and the union had to go to great lengths, including a three-day sit-in at Shephard's office building, to book a meeting.
"We left that meeting with the understanding that they were going away to explore some options," Teare said. "The other appointed negotiator at the table had said that in order to do that they would need a little bit of time, so we wouldn't be meeting today.
"Is that where talks broke off?"
Teare conceded the sides "aren't close" to an agreement.
About 4,000 nursing home workers, including licensed practical nurses, resident attendants and support service workers, have been negotiating a contract since 2016, seeking higher wages.
On May 9, the union negotiators "modified" their initial monetary package proposal to the government, said Teare.
The so-called enhanced offer, no matter how you word it, is no different than what was initially presented.- Union executive
They were told to wait more than four days for the government to come up with a "meaningful response."
But on Tuesday the government came back with only a "marginal" rewording of the initial one per cent offer, which 96 per cent of workers already rejected in early March by voting in favour of a strike, said Teare.
"The so-called enhanced offer, no matter how you word it, is no different than what was initially presented," the Facebook post said.
On Tuesday, the minister said the government is optimistic a negotiated agreement "will eventually be reached that is fair to nursing home employees and to residents."
But in a revised statement issued minutes later, Shephard said the government is "restricted by the province's fiscal reality and must also be fair to New Brunswick taxpayers."
The union contends the government cannot balance the budget on the backs of workers.
"Our backs are broken."
It is seeking binding arbitration on the issue of wages, arguing real wage improvements are a necessary first step to address recruitment and retention crisis.
Shephard's statement did not mention binding arbitration.
The government previously offered binding arbitration with conditions, but the union rejected it, calling for unrestricted proceedings.
Judicial review next week
The New Brunswick Council of Nursing Homes Unions represents CUPE employees at 46 non-profit nursing homes across the province.
On April 26, the Court of Appeal stayed a labour board decision that would have allowed the nursing home workers to walk off the job.
The three-justice panel ruled there will be no strike until a judicial review of the labour board decision is completed or until further orders from the Court of Queen's Bench. A judicial review is set to begin on May 24 in Moncton.
With files from Radio-Canada