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Unions in New Brunswick Protest Bill 23

by Chris Wanamaker, member of Socialist Action in Saint John, New Brunswick.

As opposition to it grows, it appears that the very legislation enacted by the Conservative government to limit the rights of unions is creating an unprecedented level of solidarity among them.

On December 19, New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL) members, its affiliated unions, and Unifor, protested Bill 23 outside the office of Labour Minister Trevor Holder in Saint John, and at offices of other Conservative MLAs across the province.

The Federation consists of 19 unions, 336 locals and six district labour councils. It represents more than 40,000 workers. The NBFL is known as “the central voice of labour” in the Maritime province. Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, though outside the federal umbrella Canadian Labour Congress, joined the protest.

Holder, who presented the bill in the New Brunswick Legislature, described it as an effort to bring “clarity” to rules governing essential workers. However, the bill appears to be much more than that.

The government now has seized the power to replace what it calls essential workers who are on strike with scabs or replacement workers. It also can change the work schedule of essential workers.

Reflecting on his 40 years of labour experience, NBFL President, Daniel Legere said this part of the bill makes no sense to him. He said it is an effort to “get back at CUPE, which mounted a successful strike last year, and to put a shot across the bow of public sector unions about to go into bargaining.”

In addition to the new rules for essential workers, unions will now be forced to give 72 hours’ notice before going on strike, whereas the province will need to provide only 24 hours’ notice before locking out workers in a legal strike position.

If both sides agree to binding arbitration, the government has now given permission to arbitrators to consider the province’s financial situation in their rulings.

As well, a union membership vote for a strike mandate will expire after one year.

Earlier this month, nine labour leaders issued a joint statement protesting the bill via the New Brunswick News, owned by the right wing Post Media. The leaders represented the NBFL, CUPE NB, NB Union, NB Nurses Union, the NB Teachers’ Federation, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Professional Institute of the Public Service Canada Atlantic, and the Association of Francophone Teachers of New Brunswick.

The Liberal and Green opposition parties also voiced strong criticism of the bill, although the Liberal critic of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Employment, Keith Chiasson, would not commit to repealing the legislation if his party wins the next election.

NB NDP Leader Alex White called the legislation a travesty and said that, if elected, the New Brunswick NDP would immediately repeal it.

“The NB NDP stands firmly beside the workers,” he said. “This unjust attack shows the utter disdain this government has for the very people that keep our province functioning, as evidenced by the absence of any consultation or discussions. The NB NDP calls on the Higgs government to abandon Bill 23 and respect the rights of the working people of New Brunswick.”

Stephen Drost, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in New Brunswick, declared the bill is an attack on workers.

New Brunswick Union president Susie Proulx-Daigle condemned the bill as a threat to “labour peace” — rather than invoke the time-honoured slogan No Justice, No Peace.

Legere has called the members of the federation to action. “The labour movement will not sit quietly while Premier Blaine Higgs passes legislation that strips rights away from the hard-working people of this province.” Private and public sector unions have agreed to meet in January to talk about next steps.

Unifor Atlantic Regional Director Jennifer Murray also noted the bill was passed without consultation.

118,000 New Brunswick workers belong to private or public sector unions, at least one out of eight workers in the province, with a growing population of 776,823 (2019 census).

In Fall 2021, thousands of public sector workers in a strike organized by CUPE, picketed for 16 days, demanding pay increases and fair conditions.  The strike attracted more public support than seen in a long time, but its success has been questioned.

CUPE NB settled for a two percent per year “increase” over five years, plus an annual raise of 25 cents per hour.  Their members had not received a pay raise in 15 years. The “increase” and raise fell far short of the rate of inflation. On the issue of pensions, CUPE agreed to transfer two groups of workers still eligible for defined-benefit pensions to an inferior “shared risk” pension plan. This means the government no longer guarantees their pension rates. Local 1253, representing 1,900 school custodians and maintenance workers, voted to reject the deal.

The Conservatives’ rushed passage of Bill 23 may seem like a unique response to the growing discontent of New Brunswick union members. However, it forms part of a pattern. It is evident in the attempt by Ontario’s Doug Ford government to block 55,000 CUPE education workers from taking job action by using the notwithstanding clause of the federal constitution. In this case, united protests by the labour movement forced the Ontario government to rescind its Bill 28.

The conditions fostered by late capitalism that have promoted such authoritarianism include (a) inter-imperialist rivalry, evident in the Ukraine conflict – triggered by the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia, with an associated threat of nuclear war; (b) global warming – the result of fossil-fuelled capitalism that places at risk all life on earth; (c) the U.S.-led cold war against China, a sign of diminishing U.S. economic hegemony; (d) price hyper-inflation, which aggravates social inequality and spreads poverty widely; (e) the continuing pandemic variants; (f) a public health care system under severe stress, facing privatization pressures, and (g) the housing crisis, reflected in rampant homelessness and deaths due to exposure.

As it becomes increasingly clear that capitalism has outlived its usefulness, as the economy declines and the natural environment around us continues to deteriorate, governments display a desperation to curb dissent and exert more control. Capital expects the state to legislate the obedience of workers to their authority. The system aims to force workers to pay for its crises.  Workers look to labour and NDP leaders to lead the resistance, which must include mass job action, not just words.