The New Brunswick wing of the Canadian Union of Public Unions says over 20,000 workers could participate in a September strike vote if several bargaining units remain without contracts come Labour Day.
Fifty days have elapsed in the 100-day ultimatum issued by the union. It calls on the province to enter into good faith negotiations with locals needing contracts or face a potential fall strike that would impact large parts of the public service.
CUPE NB president Stephen Drost says little progress has been made, even after a recent meeting with the premier.
“The premier didn’t really seem to take us seriously,” Drost said during a virtual press conference held by CUPE NB.
“There was a lot of very light talk. He said maybe sometime in the future we could have a marathon of bargaining. There were no specifics given around what that would mean. We did let him know that these groups are more than willing to sit down and negotiate.”
About half a dozen locals are in a deadlock position with the province, some of whom have been without a contract for two to three years. The locals in question represent workers from a number of sectors, among them provincial correctional officers, human service councillors, laundry workers, custodians, hospital support staff, education assistants and school administrative assistants.
The deadlock in negotiations has been coming since Premier Blaine Higgs announced that the province would pursue a wage freeze mandate in negotiations with public sector unions. In recognition of declining revenues and rising expenses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Higgs pitched a four-year contract that would feature one year with no raise followed by a modest one-per-cent raise in the other three.
Since the wage freeze mandate was put in place, only two bargaining units have signed new deals. Last week the province reached a tentative agreement with two of three bargaining units represented by the New Brunswick Nurses Union, but the details have yet to be released.
CUPE has not reacted to the wage freeze mandate positively, saying wages have already slipped over the previous 15 years.
“We bring it back down to choices,” Drost said.
“The government is choosing very deliberately to take on the public sector workers and not treat them fairly.”
Higgs was not made available for an interview.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the department of finance and treasury board says the province is willing to negotiate.
Premier Higgs has suggested the province and the various CUPE locals meet in late July or early August, which is a sign that the provincial government is open to further talks with CUPE, Mélanie Sivret said in an email.
“The province is facing significant challenges, which have been amplified by the ongoing economic and fiscal impact of COVID-19. The province must ensure all collective agreements across government are fair for the employees and New Brunswick taxpayers.”
Drost says a deal could be reached immediately if the political will to bargain in good faith was present, but says the union will continue preparing for a September strike vote in the meantime.
Should the relevant locals vote to strike, they’ll have the support of their provincial counterparts in Ontario.
“When our CUPE Ontario executive board learned of the mobilization happening here we were so inspired that we voted unanimously to enter into a solidarity pact,” said CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn.
The first part of that pact is $50,000 to support CUPE NB members, a gift in solidarity from the 280,000 members of CUPE Ontario.
Drost said the union is well-positioned to provide $300 a week in strike pay. The CUPE national strike fund is stocked with about $130 million.
“If, in fact, they exercise their right to strike after they take their strike vote, it will basically shut the province down,” Drost said.
But the government says the health and safety of the public will be protected should a strike happen.
“In the event of a strike, there are workers that are designated as essential in all CUPE units to ensure the health and safety of the public,” Sivret said.