By working together, workers in New Brunswick have an opportunity to improve their wages and their spending in local communities, according to Daniel Légère, president of the largest union in the province, CUPE New Brunswick. He says his union is determined to make that happen.
Wages for public sector workers in the province have increased less than the rate of inflation for five of the last eight years due to government austerity measures. When wages drop relative to inflation, communities suffer as buying power is reduced and people are not able to spend as much on local goods and services.
CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees) is Canada’s largest union, with more than 650,000 members across the country including about 30,000 in the province. To achieve increased wages and spending power in New Brunswick, CUPE NB is working on a campaign of solidarity among CUPE NB locals, other unions in the province, and progressive social movements.
An initial step in this campaign was the CUPE conference on March 15-16, Breaking the Mandate, at which 250 workers and union leaders from across New Brunswick met to discuss how they could work together to improve wages in the province. “I’ve never seen a conference where CUPE members’ resolve was so high and positive,” says Légère. “Our delegates gave us a message loud and clear that we’re on the right track. Our top three priorities going forward in bargaining are going to be “Wages, Wages, Wages.”
“The conference is a movement that we’ve started,” says Légère. The symbol of their movement, the raised clenched fist, is an international symbol of solidarity and unity and a sign of defiance. “The next step is to take the conference to our members in all corners of the province and give the facts to and hear from as many of the members as we can.”
Légère believes that unions need to be working closely with progressive social movements to speak up for those who don’t have a voice, including people living in poverty, immigrants settling in New Brunswick, and other marginalized groups. “CUPE as a social union has both an interest and a responsibility to be working with those groups. There’s an old saying: ‘A rising tide lifts all ships.’ There’s a cost to poverty. If you can address these issues bang on, we’re convinced we’ll see an overall better society and a reduction in costs of healthcare and other public services.”
A big challenge is that although new wealth is being generated in New Brunswick and across the country, “it’s going to the top 10% of Canadians,” says Légère. In addition, the corporate sector is not contributing enough in tax revenues. “We are very concerned with tax havens and revenues that are not generating taxes back to governments to properly pay for services that New Brunswickers and Canadians deserve,” says Légère. He would like both federal and provincial government to revisit the corporate tax structure to assess if large corporations are really paying their fair share, because the corporations are recipients of not only tax breaks and huge public grants and loan guarantees but also public services.
Interestingly, “Are the Irving’s Canada’s Biggest Welfare Bums?” was the title of one of an award-winning series of investigative articles about the Irving family by Bruce Livesey of the National Observer. In the article, Livesey detailed the many public subsidies received by the Irving family of companies as well as the fact that Statistics Canada lists nearly a dozen Irving companies registered in Bermuda and paying lower taxes than they would in Canada. Soon after CUPE’s Breaking the Mandate conference, the Irving’s Brunswick News company published an editorial criticizing CUPE and suggesting that public sector unions should not be allowed to exist.
Légère does not necessarily see a link between the Brunswick News editorial and a coordinated effort by big business in Canada to try to break the union movement, which is currently happening in the US. The US Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments in a case, Janus vs. AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) that will decide if union members across the country could receive all the benefits of being in a union without having to pay union dues. The Janus intervention is financed by the Koch brothers and other big business interests with a stated aim to break the unions that they believe is the cornerstone for progressive social movements in that country.
Légère notes that in Canada attempts have been made historically to weaken unions by conservative governments led by Stephen Harper federally and Tim Hudak in Ontario. “It’s an agenda that’s been driven by big business that wants to muzzle the voices of workers and keep workers supressed, and basically not give workers their rightful share of the profits that the companies make. If large corporations are without unions then each worker is humbly begging on their own and not negotiating collectively.”
“We beat that back,” says Légère. Although there have been attempts to restart that debate in Canada, “it hasn’t got any mileage,” and he does not see a coordinated attempt to restart the anti-union movement in Canada. In fact, Légère believes the pendulum is swinging the other way in Canada with the call for a $15 minimum wage and a living wage. “The call for unionization and workers uniting, that voice is getting louder and louder, and this article (by Brunswick News) may be a desperate attempt to try and silence that voice.”
Susan O’Donnell is a researcher and adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick and a member of the Retired Members Guild of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC).