Nursing home workers in New Brunswick fought long and hard to win the right to negotiate their wages and working conditions. They also forced the province to ensure better standards of care and safety for residents. The following excerpt from Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour describes the historic strike at the Bethel Nursing Home in 1981-82.
Women who worked in the province’s nursing homes, which were funded by public monies but privately operated, were also joining unions. By 1981, workers had won union certification at more than 20 of these establishments across the province. One employer resisted the union with a lockout, but otherwise there had been no strikes.
In rural Queens County employees faced unusually extreme conditions at the Bethel Nursing Home at Mill Cove. When Jean Moss and other workers invited Canadian Union of Public Employees organizer Joan Blacquier to meet with them, Blacquier recalled that “the air was blue” with stories of long hours, low wages, little training, missed pays, paternalism, intimidation, and abusive treatment. They also told her about practices that endangered the health and safety of the residents. All this was taking place under the aegis of an independent evangelical minister whose family owned and operated the nursing home, the gas station, motel, restaurant, and general store as well as a funeral home.
To Blacquier’s surprise, it took only a few days for the women to collect more than enough signed union cards to organize CUPE Local 2464 and apply for certification in January 1981; a vote was held in February and a certification order issued in March. Signing a contract was another matter, and the local went out on strike at the end of August.
The impasse did not end soon. Members and families parked cars and trucks along the TransCanada Highway to block access to the home, and truckdrivers were warned by CB radio not to make their usual stops at Mill Cove. Injunctions later limited the picket line to six people and two cars, and the community settled in for a long siege, supported by small strike pays and contributions from the Federation of Labour and other supporters.
Meanwhile, sworn affidavits concerning irregularities in financial practices and nursing care at the home were submitted to Premier Richard Hatfield by the workers as well as by a doctor and by a registered nurse who had previously worked at the home. Following an inspection, Minister of Health Brenda Robertson ordered the home closed, and the 100 residents were relocated by ambulance to hospitals.
The Federation of Labour and CUPE called for expropriation of the home. Instead, the province arranged for a purchase by new investors, and the new Mill Cove Nursing Home reopened in September 1982. It took a full thirteen months on the line, but the workers finally had a contract.
In this local battle, a small group of workers helped consolidate the place of unions in the province’s nursing homes. They also demonstrated that unions could succeed in winning public support and respect for low-paid women workers. As Phil Booker, who regularly stood on the picket line from midnight to 8 a.m. later recalled, “This local, from the time it started, I think, as a crew had probably more guts than I ever saw in people in a local before or since.”
David Frank is professor emeritus in Canadian history at the University of New Brunswick.