New Brunswick

Snowplow operators' strike could see some rural roads plowed only after storms, email shows

New Brunswick's transportation minister says rural residents have no reason to fear any reductions in snowplowing services this winter.

Opposition MLAs fear service cuts may extend beyond labour dispute but transportation minister says no plans

CUPE wants to hold a strike vote after the province rejected a conciliation report last fall recommending a 12 per cent pay increase over four years. (CBC)

New Brunswick's transportation minister says rural residents have no reason to fear any reductions in snowplowing services this winter.

Bill Oliver says a suggestion that scaled-back plowing could extend beyond a potential strike by plow operators is not government policy.

"Is it policy that we would look to be more efficient, cost-wise? Certainly," he said. "But does that mean cutting roads out? I don't believe so."

A departmental email sent to some MLAs representing rural ridings last month said, in the event of a strike by unionized plow operators, "a number of lower volume roads" had been identified and would be plowed only after a storm was over.

That would allow the department "to maintain the best level of service possible under the circumstances on higher traffic volume roads."

Bill Oliver, New Brunswick's transportation minister, said roads would continue to be serviced during a strike, but the time of service might change. (Radio-Canada)

But the Dec. 3 email went on to say that those discussions had led to questions about how the lower-volume roads are plowed, whether that provides "value for money" and "whether these [changes] could be extended beyond a strike."

Opposition Liberal MLA Francine Landry said that would be unfair to rural residents. "What is being proposed is not clear," she said. "That's where we are concerned."

Oliver said he is not aware of any plan to reduce service outside a labour dispute.

"I've never had that discussion, other than to say, 'We should be looking for efficiencies.' … I don't think not plowing a road is being efficient because we're going to have to go back and plow it anyway."

Labour board ruling by end of month

Last fall the government and the union, Local 1190 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, declared a deadlock in their negotiations after the province rejected a conciliation report recommending a 12 per cent pay increase over four years.

The union wants to hold a strike vote, though that's been held up by the government challenging two elements of the planned vote: whether about 600 casual workers can cast ballots, and whether the union can hold the vote online.

The New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board is set to rule on both issues at the end of January, according to union president Brent Wiggins.

Oliver said if a strike happens, the reduced service would involve some roads that are now plowed in the morning, during a storm, being plowed instead only when the storm is over.

"They're going to be serviced," he said. "It's just that the time of the service might change."

Most operators designated essential

But he said those are roads with few residents.

"That's not to say those roads aren't valuable to the people who live on them but we have to look at the roads that have the majority of people travelling on them or that get the majority of traffic."

Wiggins said he doesn't see a strike having a huge impact on plowing because most operators are designated as essential and don't have the right to strike.

"It's not 100 per cent but we're talking high 80s," he said.

Given that, he doesn't think a strike will have much of an effect on plowing. "I'd be very surprised if it would cause that much," he said. "Secondary roads might take a bit longer but, at the end of the day, the numbers are still going to be there."

Local 1190 also represents other government employees, such as employees and performers at provincial parks and tourist sites.

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