Sandy Harding, CUPE Maritimes Regional Director, says the labour dispute at the rural landfill serving northeastern New Brunswick is highly unusual. On Feb. 12, the Chaleur Regional Service Commission (CRSC) issued a lockout notice for the 23 members of CUPE 4193 at the Allardville landfill and brought in scabs (“replacement workers“) to keep the site open.
Bargaining disputes usually involve wages but the CRSC management issued the lockout notice after a dispute about doctor’s notes for sick days.
The CUPE 4193 contract expired in December 2017. The contract states that a worker must produce a doctor’s note if sick leave extends beyond three days. At the bargaining table, the management team demanded that the contract be changed to require a worker to produce a doctor’s note the first sick day taken. When the CUPE team refused to accept it, the management team walked away from the table and issued a lockout notice.
In her years as a union representative, Harding has seen many bargaining situations, including strikes and lockouts, but referring to the Allardville case she said: “Locked out for refusing to get a doctor’s note every time you’re sick? I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Harding mentioned the doctor shortage in the province and noted that the CRSC issued the lockout notice the same week the Higgs government proposed cuts to rural health services.
CUPE 4193 President Serge Plourde, a labourer at the Red Pine landfill, previously told the NB Media Co-op that the management is treating its workers “like garbage.” Claudia Gionet, who has worked at the landfill for 25 years, said she never would have believed that management would treat its workers like that.
The CRSC board that approved the lockout notice and use of scabs is made up of the mayors of the city of Bathurst, the town of Beresford, the four rural villages of Belledune, Petit-Rocher, Nigadoo, and Pointe-Verte, and the chairpersons of four Local Service Districts. The CRSC board chair is Belledune mayor Joe Noel.
The other non-monetary item on the table at the time was unpaid union leave. The management team demanded that the contract be changed to restrict the unpaid leave that workers who are CUPE representatives can take for union meetings.
Another unusual feature of the lockout: in the recent Fredericton lockout of the city’s outside workers, the city issued the lockout notice after CUPE 508 issued a strike notice. The purpose of such a lockout can be to avoid the disruption of a rotating strike. However in the Allardville case, CUPE 4193 did not vote or call for a strike. It seems obvious the employer is attempting to impose its proposed changes to the collective agreement by a show of force.
“Are they trying to crush the workers?” Sandy Harding asked in an interview with the NB Media Co-op. Referring to the elected representatives on the CRSC board, she said: “It’s shocking to me that elected officials would put 23 families in this situation.”
The CRSC management told CUPE they would not come back to the bargaining table before March 12. Going into their third week on lockout, the landfill workers are struggling to pay their bills.
Harding believes that part of the reason for the situation is the CRSC’s engagement of consultants from outside the region. The CRSC contracted a consulting firm from Moncton to advise them on collective bargaining. “What do they know about the local situation? They come in, collect their meals, travel and hourly rates and then go back to Moncton. They have no skin in the game” said Harding.
CUPE Maritimes Regional Director Sandy Harding, CUPE NB President Brien Watson, other CUPE staff and leaders, and New Brunswick Federation of Labour President Danny Légère have all walked the picket with CUPE 4193 members since the lockout began. CUPE locals from across New Brunswick have been posting solidarity messages on Facebook. The top two CUPE national officials issued a solidarity statement from Ottawa for the CUPE 4193 workers.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is Canada’s largest union, with more than 26,000 members in New Brunswick and 700,000 members across the country.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.