General Strike Looms in NB

by James MacFarlan

Over the past week more than 22,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members in New Brunswick have been casting ballots in a strike vote. Some of these folks have been working without a contract for as long as five years. Deadlocks have been piling up under consecutive provincial governments, both Liberal and Tory.

On August 27, over 100 members of CUPE’s bargaining teams met in Fredericton for a day-long bargaining summit. Guest speakers included the CUPE NB president, the CUPE national president, and the presidents of the Canadian Labour Congress and the NB Federation of Labour.

On August 28, hundreds of CUPE members and their families, friends and supporters marched in 14 communities across New Brunswick. More than 1,000 attended the march in Saint John. The Saint John rally was the largest in memory since a 1992 general strike. At that rally, Socialist Action was there. SA members Chris Thompson, Mackenzie Thomason, Chris Wanamaker, Lynaya Astephen, Josh Floyd and I were there, as well as Saint John NDP candidate Don Paulin. We walked with the SA banner and we helped deliver giant-size invoices to the office of a local MLA, billing the Higgs government for services. In Moncton about 300 people marched; in Fredericton about 250.  Invoices were delivered there as well.

Talks between CUPE and NB Premier Higgs broke down at the beginning of September. The government’s final offer to public sector workers was a 1.25% raise for 4 years, followed by 2% raises in the subsequent two years. That offer of 9% over 6 years is well below the rate of inflation, which may exceed 12% by the final year of the proposed contract. The government also demanded concessions in return for this paltry raise, including significant changes to workers’ pensions. When this offer was refused by CUPE’s bargaining team, the province walked away from the bargaining table.

New Brunswick Nurses joined a National Day of Action on September 17 to raise the issue of overtime and workloads due to staff shortages that lead to nurses leaving the profession. A rally was held at the Legislature in Fredericton and coincided with similar events all across the country.

As workers began the process of voting this past week, CUPE NB discovered that some 800 employee names had been left off eligible voters’ lists that had been provided by the NB Labour Board. The Premier was asked about this issue at a press conference last Monday.

Quote from CBC:

“I believe that CUPE were working off an old list from the labour board, but we provide them readily,” Higgs said when asked about the complaint.

“I think what is equally surprising is that these are members that all pay union dues, and I would anticipate that the list of individuals paying union dues would be well understood by CUPE.”

But CUPE NB President Steve Drost said that, according to labour laws, the union has to rely on the province’s list of public employees, not their own internal list.

Drost said he was concerned by Higgs’s comments, which he called “extremely misleading.”

“These were lists that were recently provided to these locals in the past month or so,” he said.

Mere days after this misinformation was spread by the Premier, the government also filed a complaint against CUPE Local 1190 at the Labour Board, claiming they were engaging in unfair labour practices and bad faith bargaining. Premier Higgs appears to be begging for a fight with New Brunswick’s largest public sector union.

It appears he is going to get it. As of September 19, strike votes tallied in 3 CUPE locals show these results:

·  Local 1866 (WorkSafeNB staff), with 83 per cent in favour, and 88 per cent of members votting.

·  Local 5017 (NBCC staff), with 93 per cent voting in favour, and 100 per cent of members participating. 

·  Local 1840 (court stenographers), with 96 per cent voting in favour, and 96 per cent of members participating

These numbers are nothing short of remarkable. CUPE members across the province are already telling the government, in resounding fashion, that the province’s demand for wages that do not match the rapidly rising cost of living, and for concessions on previously hard-bargained benefits, are simply unacceptable. With the remaining locals set to finish voting on September 25, it is evident that public sector workers in New Brunswick are prepared to do whatever it takes to fight for their right to fair wages and working conditions.  CUPE NB is not alone in this struggle.