The union representing a number of health-care workers in New Brunswick says representatives from the government walked away from the bargaining table on Tuesday.
Norma Robinson, the president of CUPE Local 1252, says a meeting with an appointed conciliator ended after representatives from the treasury board did not return after a break in talks. The New Brunswick Council of Hospital Unions represents over 10,000 health-care workers ranging from licensed practical nurses (LPNs), to maintenance workers, to cleaners and dieticians and has been without a contract since 2019.
The two sides last met in December, when Premier Blaine Higgs relayed that the province would use the wage freeze for non-unionized public sector employees as a template for negotiations with unionized workers. Robinson said Tuesday’s meeting only happened after the conciliator urged them to come back to the table.
After the union presented its proposal, Robinson said government representatives left to consider and said they’d be back with an answer after lunch.
“Our package was very similar to what we presented in December, so it wasn’t anything new, it was the same type of package. They should have been prepared to come back with an answer,” Robinson said. “At 1 o’clock the conciliator informed us they would not be coming back, they didn’t have an answer.
“It’s frustrating to see the lack of respect, the lack of acknowledgement and just not coming back to the table and having the conversation.”
When asked about the meeting, the government presented a different picture of events.
“The union ended the conciliation and advised the employer that they would be applying for the next step in the process which would be a conciliation board,” wrote Jennifer Vienneau, a spokesperson for the treasury board.
Vienneau added that the union is asking for a higher wage offer than what is being offered by the government. According to a communique from the union in December, the government offer is for three per cent over four years, with no increase coming in year two and one per cent raises for the other three of the contract.
“I think everyone wants to do their part so this is just one way to say, ‘Look, we’re going to hold the line,’ we’re going to try and stay under control here even though we’re behind the eight-ball financially,” Higgs told reporters on Dec. 11, shortly after meeting with union representatives.
Robinson says the union has no choice but to let the bargaining process, as outlined in the Public Service Labour Relations Act, play out. The next step would be a conciliation board. After that, if an agreement still has not been reached, the sides could agree to binding arbitration, but if not, a “deadlock” can be declared, at which point a strike vote would take place.
Robinson said the union has been frustrated with the process so far.
“The relationship at the table is, if I was to put it in a word, frustrating,” Robinson said.
“It’s very apparent that when they come to the table they can’t make decisions, they’re always having to walk away and get an answer from somebody else. Our position is that if you can’t make the decisions then send someone to the table who can.”