New Brunswick

Unions call out premier on wage freeze plan

Public-sector labour unions are urging Premier Blaine Higgs to negotiate in good faith and not assume they can accept the same wage freeze he has imposed on non-unionized civil servants.

Higgs' wage freeze plan doesn't sit well with public-sector labour unions

Higgs confirmed this week that his government has imposed a one-year freeze on salaries for public servants and he hopes to extend it to unionized workers at some point during their next contracts. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Public-sector labour unions are urging Premier Blaine Higgs to negotiate in good faith and not assume they can accept the same wage freeze he has imposed on non-unionized civil servants.

Higgs confirmed this week that his government has imposed a one-year freeze on salaries for public servants and he hopes to extend it to unionized workers at some point during their next contracts.

He wants them to accept no raise in one year of a new four-year contract and a one percent increase in each of the other three years. 

"The idea is there would be a formula of one, zero, one, one," he said, "and zero would represent 2020," though he said the zero year could end up as a different year.

Higgs emphasized he does not plan to use legislation to break existing contracts and impose the freeze. 

But he said he wants the focus of contract talks to be on innovative ways to provide the same services rather than on wage hikes the province cannot afford. 

"What we want to do is manage expectations, and turn this negotiation into thinking different about what we learned from COVID," he said. 

"Let's not turn it into a lot of discussion around salaries we're trying to protect, but what we can do differently to meet our needs and what we learned through COVID." 

Higgs made the comments Thursday night and repeated the same arguments late Friday afternoon to reporters after a Zoom meeting with union leaders.

Unions not happy

They are already warning the premier not to assume they'll accept his template.

"Front-line heroes shouldn't get zeros," said Brien Watson, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees for New Brunswick. 

Ten bargaining units represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees are without contracts at the moment, as are 20 represented by the New Brunswick Union and three that come under the New Brunswick Nurses Union.

Higgs's stance "has shaken and hurt us all," Watson told reporters Friday afternoon.

"Front-line heroes shouldn't get zeros," said Brien Watson, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees for New Brunswick. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Asked if the premier's position will lead to strikes, CUPE Maritimes regional director Sandy Harding said "that will be up to our members to make that decision."

The CUPE unions include Local 1252, the New Brunswick Council of Hospital Unions, which represents almost 10,000 non-clinical employees. 

"This is very disheartening," Harding said. "Our members, front-line workers, have worked tirelessly during this pandemic and have kept this province going." 

Susie Proulx-Daigle, president of the NBU, said Higgs should not have his mind made up this early. 

"Government will bring its position to the bargaining table and we will bring ours," she said. "Good faith bargaining requires both sides to hear the other out, and give consideration to their proposals. What it doesn't involve is having a predetermined outcome."

Fiscal pressures force hand

Higgs is justifying the push for restraint in part because of fiscal pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He says he's worried that the economic downturn will mean a reduction in federal transfer payments from Ottawa, which the province depends on to fund programs.

But Opposition Liberal Leader Roger Melanson says Higgs's comments are in line with his vision dating back to when he was finance minister from 2010 to 2014. 

"When you do go into negotiations for collective bargaining, you need to go there in good faith and he's not known to do that," Melanson said.

"The premier has got an ideology that services need to be cut and reduced. And I think based on this right-wing ideology, he's using this pandemic as a pretext or an umbrella to justify all of what he actually always wanted to do."

Premier Blaine Higgs is justifying the push for restraint in part because of fiscal pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

He also warned that Higgs's position could make it harder to recruit workers in some sectors where staffing shortages already exist, such as among nursing home workers.

Green party Leader David Coon said every union looking for a new contract is different and Higgs should not be using a one-size-fits-all approach in his position on wages. 

"I think it's problematic for the premier to open up the negotiations in public with what he's saying around a wage freeze for a year." 

Higgs's one-year freeze for civil servants in what's known as part one of the public service can be done unilaterally because those employees aren't unionized.

He defended the decision by pointing out that the province did not lay off any of them during the pandemic, even though many of them had less work to do.

He said that came at a cost of $87 million but it's one reason no one seems upset about accepting a one-time pay freeze.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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