Unionized liquor store workers in New Brunswick have voted 97.7 per cent in favour of an unlimited strike mandate and are ready to hit the picket lines starting Nov. 16.
Unless a negotiated deal is reached, the 566 members of CUPE Local 963 who work at NB Liquor’s 41 publicly owned retail stores and warehouses will join thousands of other public sector workers who have been on strike for almost two weeks.
“Stores will be closed. The warehouse will be closed to inbound and outbound traffic,” union local president Jamie Agnew said Tuesday morning at a news conference in Hanwell, N.B., located outside Fredericton.
The main issue is wages. Agnew said the union had a tentative agreement with management of the Crown-owned agency over a year ago, but Premier Blaine Higgs blocked it.
“I haven’t had a raise in three years and my last increase was 0.5 per cent,” Agnew said. “We are struggling. We need a fair deal and we need it now.”
The government’s last wage offer, he said, was 8.5 per cent over five years – less than what had been agreed to in the tentative deal.
“We had a tentative agreement for nine per cent over five years, with better language for maternity leave, better language for wellness, and volunteer days,” he said. “That deal was turned down by Mr. Higgs.”
The union said the premier stopped the deal because it did not fit with his plans to freeze public sector wages. A deadlock in negotiations was declared Oct. 8, and the strike vote was conducted last week.
Agnew said NB Liquor reported sales in the 2020-21 fiscal year of $506 million and income of $199 million, adding that the corporation can afford to pay his members a fair wage.
“These members have been at work since Day 1 of the pandemic, dealing with thousands of customers per day, not knowing when a possible exposure may happen,” he said. “The members have spoken and they have made it very clear. They want a fair deal and they are ready to walk until a fair deal is presented or achieved.”
Meanwhile, the strike by thousands of public servants, including school bus drivers, educational support staff and workers in transportation, corrections and the community college system, entered Day 12 on Tuesday. The two sides are close on the issue of wages, but the government wants to introduce a new pension plan for two locals – something CUPE New Brunswick president Steve Drost says must be taken out of the bargaining process.
“We’ve all agreed at this table those pensions can’t be negotiated during this round of bargaining,” he told reporters Tuesday. “They must come off the table.”
But later in the day, Higgs said the issue should not be punted to the future because the pension plans are not sustainable.
“The government puts in about three dollars to every dollar that a member puts in,” Higgs told reporters at the legislature. “Over and above that, the pension requires special payments in order to stay afloat. That amounts to four or five dollars for every one dollar an employee puts in.
“That’s not fair to taxpayers.”
The premier said he wants actuaries to review the pension plans for the two locals, adding that he would be fine with whatever they decide needed to be done. “We will accept the recommendation of the actuaries to put forward a sustainable pension plan,” he said.
Higgs said the union should take his final offer to its members, and he said he could ask the labour board to make that happen.
“It is an option and we are looking at that.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.