CUPE workers at 46 nursing homes give 'overwhelming' strike mandate
New Brunswick government asks for stay of labour board decision
Union members at 46 non-profit nursing homes across New Brunswick have voted in favour of a strike.
More than 4,100 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees cast votes Thursday. Results released Friday by the union indicate the overall yes vote is above 90 per cent.
"We have gotten an overwhelming mandate," Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Locals, said at a news conference Friday afternoon.
Patrick Roy, a union spokesman with the council, said no decision has been made about whether to actually strike.
He said he hopes the results will restart negotiations. The council negotiates with the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes, which represents the 46 homes.
"We are disappointed that CUPE employees have voted in favour of a strike and hope that a strike is still avoidable," Roger Levèsque, president of the association, said in a news release Friday.
The association said in the statement it has invited the union to resume talks. The union said at its news conference that it hopes to get back to the table soon.
The workers include licensed practical nurses, resident attendants, dietary and laundry workers and some clerical workers.
They have been without a contract since the fall of 2016. Union members rejected a tentative agreement in May 2018 that included a wage increase of one per cent per year.
Kimberly Copp works at the Forest Dale Home in Riverside-Albert. It's a physically and emotionally demanding job made tougher by the home's rural location and difficulty attracting and retaining staff, she said.
A licensed practical nurse like Copp starts at $22.90 per hour under the collective agreement that expired in 2016. After two years, she reached the top of the salary grid, making $24.65 per hour. She said she'd make the same at a hospital.
But with about a dozen patients a shift, and having to do everything from moving them, to helping with baths and meals, the union local leader said few people want the job. She said increased wages would help keep staff.
"The raises have been very minimal," she said. "They don't keep up with the cost of living."
The Forest Dale Home local voted 100 per cent in favour of a strike.
'Tears in their eyes'
"Some of them with tears in their eyes because it's not an easy decision for their families, for the residents they take care of," she said. "It's not what anyone wants to do, but it's what we feel we have to do if the government doesn't allow us to have any other choice."
Dorothy Shephard, the minister of Social Development, wouldn't say whether the province would offer more funding to the association to meet the union's demands.
Families expressed concern about how a potential strike could impact resident care.
"It's heartbreaking to see if they are going on strike," said Therese Woods, whose mother is a resident of Villa du Repos in Moncton. She said the employees are overworked, underpaid and deserve more.
"I know they try their best, but they're overworked and it's the residents who are going to suffer," she said.
Woods said if a strike occurs, she'll still come to see her mother to ensure she's well-cared for and to help out elsewhere in the home however she can.
Province urges return to table
On Thursday, as votes were still being cast, the provincial government urged the union and employer to return to the bargaining table.
New Brunswick passed a law in 2009 designating nursing home workers an essential service. However, a December 2018 labour board decision and clarification issued this week mean none of the workers are considered essential and could all walk off the job if a strike occurs.
The provincial government is seeking a judicial review of the labour board decision. On Friday afternoon, it also announce it would seek a stay of the decision until the judicial review can be completed.
Shephard said the province hopes the request for a stay will be heard by a judge Monday or Tuesday.
The stay of the decision would effectively restore the essential service law until the judicial review is complete.
Shephard told reporters her job is to protect all residents.
"I have to use every tool available in my toolbox in order to ensure that we're going down the right road," she said. "I believe this is an essential service."
With files from Gabrielle Fahmy and Radio-Canada