N.B. premier asks to meet Thursday with union representing striking public workers

Click to play video: 'CUPE to meet with Province Thursday' CUPE to meet with Province Thursday
WATCH: CUPE workers and supporters were back outside the legislature Wednesday morning. Now, leadership says they’re in talks to meet with the Premier’s office Thursday. Travis Fortnum has more – Nov 3, 2021

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has asked for a meeting Thursday with the head of the union representing public servants in the province, one week after 22,000 workers went on strike.

But CUPE New Brunswick president Steve Drost said Wednesday he didn’t know if the meeting will result in the resumption of formal negotiations. He said the premier’s request came by text message. The premier’s office confirmed the invitation for 1 p.m. Thursday.

“Nothing has been established,” Drost said in an interview. “I said I would check with our centralized bargaining team and get back to (Higgs), but we look forward to an opportunity to resolve this.”

Read more: Thousands of protesters gather at N.B. legislature to support striking public workers

Mediated contract talks broke off abruptly last week with the union representing 22,000 workers such as school bus drivers, educational support staff, and workers in transportation, corrections and the community college system. The main issue is wages and the union is seeking a 12 per cent increase over four years, while the government’s last offer was 8.5 per cent over five years.

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As well, the government has pledged to increase the pay of casual workers by 20 per cent, improve pension coverage and provide an average of $3,200 in retroactive pay.

Drost said the premier is trying to force pension reform on a couple of groups, adding that the pension issue is not relevant to this round of bargaining and should be put aside.

Click to play video: 'Thousands of protesters gather at New Brunswick legislature to support striking public workers' Thousands of protesters gather at New Brunswick legislature to support striking public workers
Thousands of protesters gather at New Brunswick legislature to support striking public workers – Nov 2, 2021

Green Leader David Coon has also recommended negotiating a wage agreement and leaving the pension issue to a later date.

Higgs, however, said Wednesday that all issues must remain on the table.

“The issues that are currently being discussed must continue to be discussed and resolved,” he told reporters at the legislature. “We are not removing anything off the table, and I expect they’re not coming back with anything less than their three per cent (per year) demand.”

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Click to play video: 'CUPE protest dominates start of New Brunswick legislature session' CUPE protest dominates start of New Brunswick legislature session
CUPE protest dominates start of New Brunswick legislature session – Nov 2, 2021

Higgs said the union’s demand is too rich for the government.

“The inflation rate over the last five years has averaged two per cent,” he said. “What we are trying to do is build an agreement here that can be managed through the system without tax increases.”

Outside the legislature, a large and noisy group of striking CUPE members and their supporters marched around the building for the second consecutive day. The strike has impacted schools and hospitals and forced the cancellation of some COVID-19 screening and vaccination clinics.

The premier said the extent of that impact will guide the government’s decision if a back-to-work order is required. “I still find this a shocking position to be in with a strike in a pandemic and hospitals being impacted,” he said.

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“My preference is we get back to the table and we can start dealing with the issues and we don’t have to get to an emergency order.”

Meanwhile, 600 unionized employees of New Brunswick’s Crown-owned liquor stores announced Wednesday they were beginning strike votes, which would be completed by Saturday. The members of CUPE Local 963 have been in bargaining for more than two years.

The province’s labour board declared a deadlock in bargaining last month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2021.

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