Nursing home workers occupy riding offices of 8 cabinet ministers
Union, employer are scheduled to return to the bargaining table Thursday
New Brunswick nursing home workers are occupying the constituency offices of eight cabinet ministers across the province, demanding binding arbitration to obtain a fair collective agreement.
The move on Monday comes on the heels of a tense three-day sit-in outside the Fredericton office of Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard last week.
At that time, members of the bargaining committee were demanding a meeting with Shephard or Premier Blaine Higgs to discuss the contract dispute and the union's push for higher wages — a move Shephard described as bullying.
CUPE spokesperson Simon Ouellette said members of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Homes Unions were "energized" by the actions of the bargaining committee, "and they're saying, 'You know, this is also a local fight.'"
They are staging protests Monday inside and outside the local riding offices of:
- Robert Gauvin in Shippagan.
- Andrea Anderson-Mason in Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West.
- Ernie Steeves in Moncton.
- Trevor Holder in Saint John.
- Ted Flemming in Rothesay.
- Dominic Cardy in Fredericton.
- Bill Oliver in Grand Bay-Westfield.
- Carl Urquhart in Nackawic.
Members have been at the offices since around 7 a.m. and plan to stay until "later tonight," said Ouellette.
"They won't (to my knowledge) stay there overnight," he said in an email to CBC News.
The parties are scheduled to return to the bargaining table on Thursday.
Members want Thursday's bargaining meeting to "be fruitful," said Ouellette. If no contract agreement can be reached, they want binding arbitration.
Outside deputy premier Robert Gauvin's office in Shippagan, the protesters sat peacefully on the ground, while his employee continued working.
When someone came out of the office, the protesters tried to enter and "were jostled," said Brenda Roy, spokesperson for locals 1507 and 1378. "They did not want us to come in."
Gauvin took a few minutes to talk to the workers — an unexpected meeting that he quickly cut short.
In Moncton, about 30 workers exchanged trumpets with car horns in front of Finance Minister Ernie Steeves's office, which was locked even though it's usually open on Mondays.
"In some places the ministers just left," said Ouellette. "They need to hear from their constituents, they have this obligation to serve their constituents, and these workers are also their constituents. They're not just nursing home workers, they're also citizens and they have rights and they vote."
Meanwhile, Chancery Place in Fredericton, which houses several government departments and the Premier's Office, has been locked down. Security personnel said it's a precaution against more CUPE protests such as the one down the street last week at Shephard's office.
The Department of Social Development respects the union's right to protest peacefully but maintains the only way to achieve a new collective agreement is by negotiating at the table, spokesperson Danielle Elliott said in an email to CBC News.
"We are looking forward to returning soon," she said.
"That is why we have enhanced our offer and also offered binding arbitration with reasonable conditions. It is important to note that while the employer has modified its offer, CUPE's demands for a 20 per cent wage increase have not changed."
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.
In early March, workers voted 90 per cent in favour of a strike, but on April 26, 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.
The province, which provides money to operate the homes, is challenging that decision.
Higgs has said the province would agree to binding arbitration only if the arbitrator took into account the wages of similar jobs in the public and private sectors. The union contends this imposition of conditions would not be binding arbitration.
With files from Jennifer Sweet and Radio-Canada