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‘Assault on labour’: Tensions rise over changes to union strike rules in N.B.

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Changes to New Brunswick labour legislation receiving criticism
WATCH: There is more criticism tonight over the government's changes to the Public Service Labour Relations Act. Public sector unions in New Brunswick are calling it a step backward as the Liberal opposition questions why the government wants the changes. Nathalie Sturgeon has that story. – Nov 25, 2022

Unions in New Brunswick are continuing to speak out against the changes tabled by the province’s labour minister on Thursday to the Public Service Relations Act, that they say will tip the scales in favour of the employer.

One of the changes allows non-unionized workers to replace unionized workers to help meet the designated levels of workers for public services that are set to keep services running.

It is being described by unions as “scab legislation.” A scab is a union-derived term that describes any employee who crosses the picket line to work in positions vacated by striking workers.

“The member opposite is using that term. I would never, never introduce legislation in this house that supported scab legislation … ever,” Minister Trevor Holder said in the legislature in response to a question by Green MLA Kevin Arsenault.

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Holder, who is the Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour, said this was about clarifying the legislation and ensuring essential services are provided.

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He has refused, despite multiple questions by reporters, to put a name on what to call workers who would fill in for unionized workers during a strike.

“A scab’s a scab,” said Arsenault. “Blaine Higgs and his government has never been there to protect workers and public services, they’ve always been there to continue their agenda of privatizing.”

Already a process in place

In New Brunswick, there is a process that an employer can follow if the union’s designated workers do not show up for work during a strike or a lockout.

The employer can notify the labour board, who can then make a decision if the union is violating the designation levels agreement.

Opposition parties argue this change of legislation furthers that process and tips the scales in favour of the government, but the Premier disagrees.

“In a strike situation, when you have an agreement that says how it’s supposed to be staffed in that situation with designated workers, you shouldn’t have to (go to the labour board),” he said, referring to a situation when designated workers don’t show up to work.

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More unions react

New Brunswick Union president Susie Proulx-Daigle said she’s unaware of a time when the process to go to the labour board didn’t work and said the changes only take the power out of the union’s hands.

“We’re going backwards, for sure. It’s an assault on the labour movement,” she said in an interview on Friday.

She has a legal team looking at the changes to see whether there is room for a legal or constitutional challenge, similar to CUPE.

On Thursday, CUPE president Steve Drost said there was no evidence that designated workers didn’t show up for work on purpose.

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When asked, the Premier was unable to provide specific examples of that despite saying in the House there were workers who didn’t present for work during the strike last year.

The New Brunswick Nurses Union has also come out against the changes.

“Changes to the Public Service Labour Relations Act represent a cowardly approach to limiting fair collective bargaining in the province,” Paula Doucet said, who is the president of NBNU. “Simply put, these changes tip the balance unfairly to GNB against Public Service – and this is the same Public Service that this government likes to trot out as being so ‘valued’ when it’s convenient for them to do so.”

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Doucet also questions how the government could think this type of legislation wouldn’t impact recruitment and retention negatively.

“We are already struggling to fill shortages in our clinics, hospitals, nursing homes and care centres,” she said in a statement. “New Brunswick should be doing everything in their power to make New Brunswick a place where people want to work, an environment where they are supported and fairly renumerated for the valuable work they do. These changes will make recruitment and retention even more difficult.”

Doucet ended her statement by saying that the NBNU is in a position to begin negations for a new contract in 2023.

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