Labour activists gathered for a two-day political education conference in November 2017 to share ideas and identify key strategic issues for action. Watch a short video introducing the story with photos from the event.
Labour unions in New Brunswick have battled many challenges in 2017. All through the year, unions and their allies have opposed the provincial government’s privatization of health services. In October, workers from across the province rallied at the Legislature to protest the inadequate level of compensation offered by WorkSafeNB to injured workers. At the end of November, labour unions came together in Fredericton for a political education conference to share ideas and identify key strategic issues in advance of the 2018 provincial election.
Many speakers at the conference referenced the vital role of labour unions to introduce positive changes in society. They said the 2018 election is an opportunity for labour to join a larger organized social movement to change the traditional two-party system of majority government in New Brunswick. A minority government in coalition with representatives from more progressive parties would be a watershed moment in provincial history.
The New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL) hosted the event. Over two days, more than 60 activists from union locals across the province and from the regional councils of the major trade unions gathered to learn more about the major challenges facing New Brunswick and share ideas about how organized labour can contribute to making the necessary changes. Around the tables in the meeting room, the union activists strengthened friendships and alliances and forged new ones.
Big windows in the meeting room at the St. Thomas University conference centre looked down on the beautiful Wolastoq (Saint John River) and the river valley far below. Grand Chief Ron Tremblay of the Wolastoq Grand Council opened the conference with a welcome to the traditional territory of his people. He spoke about how his grandfather instilled an ethic of hard work in all his children and grandchildren, reminding participants that they are all allies in the work to make the province a place that can sustain everyone for the generations to come.
Patrick Colford introduced the two themes of focus for discussion the first day: challenging poverty and protecting the environment. Both concern everyone in the province and labour unions can work with allies to tackle them. For each theme, an opening speaker set the tone, followed by a panel of experts and activists with different approaches and perspectives. After each panel, participants gathered in small groups to identify priorities for action.
Charlie Burrell, founder of the Humanity Project based in Moncton, opened the poverty theme. His organization focus is an individual, volunteer approach to address poverty — “it’s all about people helping people.” Burrell explained that he started the project because of his personal need to help people without a home. Much of the work of the Humanity Project is mobilizing volunteers to feed people who are homeless. He spoke about the Charitable Food Act and his work with the Atlantic Superstore outlets that now donate food to charitable organizations instead of dumping it. Burrell urged the conference participants to “be the change you want to see.”
The panel speakers addressed the structural causes of poverty. Randy Hatfield, Executive Director of the Saint John Human Development Council, introduced his organization’s new report, The Face of Child Poverty in New Brunswick. He first challenged participants to recognize the difference between equality and equity and question how poverty is measured. Level of income is a crude measure of poverty, he said, although it remains the one most often used.
Hatfield’s presentation raised awareness among participants about the spatial dimensions and the depths of poverty in New Brunswick. His maps and charts illustrated the significant difference in poverty levels between the metropolitan areas of the province, within urban conglomerations, and even within cities. In Saint John for example, Wards 1 and 4 have child poverty rates below the provincial average of 20.3% while Wards 2 and 3 have rates of 41.4% and 45.3%. The report’s analysis is based on the data from the most recent census. Half of all children in single parent families in NB are living in poverty. Although child poverty rates are slowly improving, much more needs to be done. Hatfield believes that labour needs to revisit the Employment Standards Act and advocate for affordable, accessible, quality daycare, and a living wage not a minimum wage.
Johanne Perron is the Executive Director of the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity. She explained that salary inequity exists when two jobs have the same value but one is paid more. Home workers in the province are paid $13 an hour, underpaid for the important work they do primarily because they are women. In the view of her organization, addressing poverty means working for pay equity. Her organization has more than 800 members and 89 member organizations including many union locals and provincial unions. As indicated by her organization’s name, they are committed to coalition building. “We will work with everyone who shares our vision,” said Perron. The NB Coalition for Pay Equity recently launched its new Pay Equity Now campaign, and she asked participants to follow them on social media and contribute to the discussion.
Daniel Légère with the New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice is also advocating for a structural approach to addressing poverty. “Our vision is that eventually we won’t need food banks,” he said. His presentation on the poverty theme panel focused on raising minimum standards for employment. This includes a range of issues from employers supplying uniforms rather than making workers pay for them, to giving workers a living wage. The Common Front continues its efforts to put poverty higher on the election platforms of the parties. Légère said the challenge for this work is that people living in poverty need to have their voices heard, and others need to listen. “If we want to influence public policy, we have to influence public opinion,” he told the union activists at the conference. That includes giving voice to people living in poverty.
Protecting the environment and green jobs
Lois Corbett, the Executive Director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, introduced the environment theme. She spoke about her childhood in Charlotte County, which she described as a pocket of social justice activism. Corbett recalled that the first piece of environmental legislation in the province, the Environmental Protection Act, was introduced in 1970, the year the Conservation Council started. New Brunswick residents care about the environment, Corbett said. She challenged the union activists in the room to “turn the concerns of union members about water and the environment into an issue we can all rally around.”
Corbett believes in the power of social movements and urged the participants to “unite and create a larger progressive movement.” Corbett’s talk focused on the development of new jobs in the green economy and the importance for the trade union movement to be engaging with the green economy. “We need the trade union movement to ensure a smooth transition” to the new economy, she said. “That will be our biggest challenge moving forward.” She said the labour unions in the province have an opportunity to build a progressive social movement here “unlike we’ve every seen before.” Her take-away suggestion was for the unions to create a three or five-point plan for the 2018 election and then “communicate the hell out of it” to sway hearts and minds across the province.
Continuing the green jobs theme, the first panel speaker was Mark D’Arcy, Fredericton-based campaigner for the Council of Canadians. He began by reminding everyone that the coalition government in British Columbia set an example for what needs to happen in this province. “Without a minority government, we will not address a low-carbon economy.” The biggest problem in New Brunswick,” said D’Arcy, “is that we do not have enough people to fill the jobs needed in a low-carbon economy.” In silvaculture alone there will be a demand for 1,000 new jobs every year. He said a low-carbon economy with a carbon tax would generate $80 billion over five years, creating 24,000 jobs over that period.
D’Arcy said that action for change needs to focus on what matters to people living in New Brunswick. His involvement with the Stop Spraying in NB movement has convinced him that this key issue will mobilize citizens in the province. The campaign has 18,000 followers on its Facebook page. “The deer population in the province has plummeted to one-quarter of what it was 30 years ago,” he said. “People are losing their quality of life.” D’Arcy suggested that a repeat of Unifor’s Voice of the People tour in 2014 would make a significant difference at election time. “Communities are starved for people to listen to them.”
Louise Comeau, Director of the UNB Environment and Sustainable Development Research Centre, presented a primer on climate change and underscored that organized labour is a key member of the coalition supporting action. Comeau screened a video, Climate Change: A Just Transition is Possible, produced by the Canadian Labour Congress. In the video, Hassan Yussuff, the President of the CLC said that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity. “If we as workers don’t take this seriously, it’s going to be a very hostile world for us to live in.” The video also featured Jerry Dias, National President of Unifor, who said that “workers have dropped the ball when it comes to taking care of the environment. It’s been a profit-driven economy and there hasn’t been any thought at all about long-term sustainability.” This has to change, he said, “we need to start making better decisions today before we lose our planet.”
Marc Blanchard is the Regional Vice President of the Scotia-Fundy Region Union of Health and Environment Workers – Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). He is also the President of PSAC local 60067 representing federal workers at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Fredericton and at the St. Andrews Biological Station. Blanchard said it is difficult for people to feel hope when there are only negative stories out there. He himself is hopeful that “the testing and monitoring that we do continues to get better.” He shared information about the harmful impact of microplastics on marine life and ultimately up the food chain, identifying this as an issue that could be the focus of activism here. “Climate change has a direct impact on people in New Brunswick and our pocketbooks, especially in coastal communities,” he said. Unions have an opportunity to be seen as actively working to challenge it.
Key issues for NB labour
The conference second day focused on key labour issues. NBFL President Patrick Colford said WorkSafeNB has been the number one focus for his federation coming from their May convention. Speaking on a labour issues panel, Colford said he was disillusioned that the WorkSafeNB board voted against the proposed 30% increase in employer contributions required to put the organization in a healthy financial position. The vote result was “quite shameful,” he said.
The NBFL will not accept defeat on this issue and will continue to work with the government to ensure that the required changes are made to the WorkSafeNB compensation fund, adding that the government indicated its support to protect workers in its Throne Speech, an unprecedented occurrence. Without the necessary changes, Colford is worried that “our workers will be left exposed,” in the event of an accident at work. Colford urged participating union representatives to make a submission to the Task Force Review of WorkSafeNB before the December 7 deadline. “The Task Force is our biggest ally,” he said. Submissions to the Task Force can be made online at this URL:
Questions from the floor included a representative from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) who shared the information that WorkSafeNB is denying some injured workers in the province the benefit of an income tax rebate. In every other province, he said, the workplace injury compensation board remits to the Canada Revenue Agency the income tax only on the portion of salary paid to the worker for compensation, and gives the remaining portion back to the worker as a rebate. In NB, WorkSafeNB remits the same portion to the CRA but does not give back the rebate to the worker. The CUPW member has been fighting this for years to little avail. Another worker came to the microphone to share her hardship when she was docked three days pay for a waiting period after she had an accident at work. This is an example of what Patrick Colford said is an unacceptable burden on injured workers that needs to be addressed by a larger employer contribution into the WorkSafeNB plan.
Also on the labour issues panel, Daniel Légère, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in New Brunswick (CUPE NB), educated the participants about the three different tactics used by private corporations to take over public services and public infrastructure. In the past, governments just handed over services and infrastructure to the private sector. When that practice was challenged, governments “got smarter” and formed P3s, partnerships with private sector organizations that he described as basically handing over the services under a different arrangement in which the private sector retains control.
Most recently, the province has seen a third tactic: government handing over only parts of a service to the private sector in multi-year contracts. Examples include handing over management of some hospital services to Sodexo, a private corporation, under a multi-year contract. “By the time the contract has ended, the government has lost the human resources ability to manage the service, and the private company will then go after the remainder of the service.” Légère highlighted the Sodexo hospital services contract as an example of how unions could build coalitions with partners across the spectrum to fight privatization. “Union activists have a responsibility to fight privatization of public services,” he stressed. “Public infrastructure — roads, hospitals, schools — is our collective wealth, and we share that collective wealth. When infrastructure is privatized, our wealth is diminished.”
Paula Doucet is President of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, NBNU, representing 6,900 registered nurses. Speaking on the labour panel, Doucet shared information about workplace violence, an issue that has become the main focus of her work since she became the union president. “Nurses have the highest rates of violence in the workplace, and the incidents of workplace violence are increasing,” she said. A recent NBNU survey found that 54% of her membership experience violence in the workplace, much of it unreported. “There is no support from the employer because violence has become a normalized behaviour in society.”
Doucet is working at the political level, making the case that violence in the workplace is a workplace hazard. Alarmingly, New Brunswick is the only province in the country without legislation in the labour code covering violence in the workplace. The conference participants applauded Doucet when she announced that in October, Gilles LePage, the newly appointed NB Minister of Labour, Employment and Population Growth, made a commitment to put workplace violence into the labour code. The change will help make the workplace safer for all workers in the province, unionized and non-unionized.
The fourth speaker on the labour issues panel, Dave Shaw, Atlantic organizer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), gave participants an update on the First Contract legislation. Labour Minister LePage introduced the amendment to the provincial Industrial Relations Act at the end of October. Currently, New Brunswick and PEI are the only two provinces without First Contract arbitration, which facilitates the introduction of a unionized workplace. NB unions have been fighting for it for years. Shaw said it was a “terrific win” for organized labour. If the legislation had been in place during the Covered Bridge chips dispute, the strike that divided families and communities and caused such hardship for so many workers would have been avoided.
Two keynote speakers on labour issues were Lana Payne, the Atlantic Regional Director for Unifor, the largest private sector union representing more than 315,000 workers across the country, and Alex Furlong, the Atlantic Region Director of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the umbrella labour organization that brings together unions and labour councils representing more than 3.3 million workers across Canada. Both speakers brought perspectives from outside the province for participants to consider. Payne spoke about why Unifor and other unions are involved in politics and why relationships are important. “Relationships are critical to successful political action, and politics and political decisions affect our members,” she explained. Collective bargaining is the core mandate of all unions but the process and wins are fragile, she said, and “labour laws are completely inadequate to support workers.” Payne urged participants to “use your voice, because using your voice changes you, reaching out to sisters and brothers changes you. You can’t crush a dream once it has taken root — using our collective power, our belief in a better world, can’t be crushed.”
Alex Furlong spoke about the CLC’s Pharmacare campaign that would bring prescription drug coverage to anyone with a health card. Currently, Canada is the only country with universal health care that does not have a universal prescription drug plan. Furlong highlighted the example of New Zealand that has universal pharmacare and provided examples of the difference in the cost of medication in that country and Canada. Provincial governments all have different drug plans that subsidize some medications for the elderly and vulnerable citizens. But one in five Canadians need to pay for medications themselves either because they do not have a drug plan or it does not cover the cost. The CLC has made universal pharmacare its number one issue on Parliament Hill, where they are lobbying for a new Act to introduce a universal drug plan. The CLC campaign: Pharmacare, A Plan for Everyone, has resources for union activists that can be used in this province. Furlong gave out a number that citizens can text if they support a national plan: 343-800-1413.
As the conference came to a close, FDLC President Ernie Cassie said it had accomplished its goal: “We got together as a group to see what the unions want for the next provincial election.” He stressed that the issues discussed “are not just for unions — for example, protecting workers from violence in the workplace and providing a public pharmacare plan will benefit everyone.” NB Federation of Labour President Patrick Colford said the unions under the NBFL umbrella are in the process of identifying the key issues for labour in the provincial election scheduled for October 2018. The political education conference in November was the first step in that process. Soon he will be communicating with the leadership of the affiliates to shape their political strategy. The discussion and direction from the political education conference will feed into the provincial political platform, he said.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op’s Editorial Board.