Nursing home workers stage sit-in at minister's office, hold protests across province
Social Development Minister Dorothy Shepard says enhanced offer includes raise matching inflation for 2 years
With last week's court decision preventing New Brunswick nursing home workers from striking for at least several months, members of the CUPE negotiating team held a sit-in outside Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard's Fredericton office on Wednesday, demanding a meeting.
"We're not going anywhere until our issues are addressed," said Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, who was in the group camped-out at the minister's King Street office.
Two police officers asked them to leave the office at closing time, around 4:30 p.m., but allowed them to stay, said CUPE spokesman Simon Ouellette. About five police vehicles were later parked outside the building, but left, said Ouellette.
As of 11 p.m., about 10 CUPE members were still in the office and planning to stay overnight, he said. A private security guard was on-site, he added.
Earlier Wednesday, hundreds of workers held protests outside the 46 nursing homes across the province where employees voted in March in favour of a strike. At each home, a group of workers chanted, waved placards and shook fists as passing motorists honked their horns in support.
"It's disappointing that it's gotta come to this," said Dana McGinnity, a resident attendant picketing outside the Kenneth E. Spencer Memorial Home in Moncton.
"And it's disappointing that there's no end in sight," he said. "At least that's how it seems to us at this point."
WATCH: Things got physical when some CUPE supporters tried to bring food to members of the negotiating team.
The 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.
In early March, they voted 90 per cent in favour of a strike, but last Friday, the Court of Appeal stayed a labour board decision that would have allowed the 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.
The labour board decision said provincial legislation that deems nursing home work an essential service is unconstitutional because it doesn't allow workers to fully strike.
All we want to do is go to binding arbitration with no parameters. And have an arbitrator tell us what we're worth.- Tammy Nadeau , Rocmaura Nursing Home worker
The province, which provides money to operate the homes, is challenging that decision.
The employer, the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes, has yet to say whether it wants to go to binding arbitration. Premier Blaine Higgs has said the province would agree to it only if the arbitrator took into account the wages of similar jobs in the public and private sectors.
The union said this imposition of conditions would not be binding arbitration.
On Wednesday, the union and workers renewed pressure in what they describe as a stalemate.
Teare said the union was expecting an enhanced offer from the province, but negotiators are still waiting to see something in writing and haven't been at the bargaining table for more than a month.
"We're not leaving," she said. "We're tired, we've been through this long enough so we're prepared to stay here until somebody comes and speaks with us.
"Nursing homes are in crisis. And we're asking for the government to provide what it is that we need in this sector to provide the care that those residents need."
Government happy to negotiate at the table
In a statement to CBC News, Shephard said if CUPE wants to negotiate, the government is "happy to do so at the table." The CUPE representatives showed up at her office without an appointment when she wasn't in the city, she said.
The government did make what Shephard called an enhanced offer. It includes a commitment to match wage increases to inflation for two years after October 2020, "provided certain performance improvements" are achieved, she said.
Those could include items that would improve the cost or quality of care offered to residents, according to a department spokeswoman.
The department is also willing to discuss issues of concern to front-line workers, such as hours of care, said Shephard. "Unfortunately, while the employer has enhanced its offer, CUPE's wage demands of a 20 per cent increase have not changed."
Workers like Rita Beaumont contend they deserve more than the province is offering.
"Asking for a cost of living raise isn't unreasonable," said Beaumont, a resident attendant at Spencer's in Moncton.
"All we want to do is go to binding arbitration with no parameters. And have an arbitrator tell us what we're worth," said Tammy Nadeau, who was protesting outside Rocmaura Nursing Home in Saint John.
"They haven't taken us seriously in a very long time," she said.
"The government is forgetting about us," said her colleague Cindy Gillette.
With files from Gabrielle Fahmy