Thousands of public sector workers in New Brunswick may walk off the job soon.
About 20,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members have been in a legal strike position since early October. Ten CUPE locals voted an average of 94 per cent in favour of job action late in the summer.
They represent hospital support workers, social workers, school custodians, ferry workers and a host of others.
CUPE delayed a decision about strike action until Oct. 22 after the provincial government instituted COVID-19 circuit breaker restrictions in several health regions to deal with a rising number of cases.
Speaking to a virtual-style mass membership meeting Thursday, CUPE Maritimes Regional Director Sandy Harding told thousands tuning in that strike headquarters are being set up around the province and workers should be ready for strike duty at a moment’s notice.
Negotiations have been tense. Wages are the primary sticking point. Some of the locals have been without new contracts for five years.
CUPE New Brunswick President Stephen Drost told members Oct. 6 that the province’s public sector workers, “are the lowest paid in Canada.”
The union has asked for a 20 per cent wage increase over a four-year deal.
Premier Blaine Higgs said the province cannot afford that.
“This has been quite a balancing act as we try to juggle the issues around dealing with COVID and the hospitalizations and what that means as the different networks are in red, and then the possibility of a strike,” Higgs said.
“I, personally, find it kind of unconscionable that (a) strike situation would be pending given what we’re dealing with on the health side.”
Higgs said the province “has a fair position” in its stance, one that he believes is fair to taxpayers and employees.
“COVID has caused us to do things differently and, I guess, if we are faced with a strike in COVID, then we will be forced to do things differently to cope,” Higgs said. “(It’s an) unfortunate situation to be in but we’ll do what’s necessary to protect the citizens of our province.”
CUPE has not released a strike date.
“A strike is coming to a town near you,” Harding said in closing her remarks.