Labour disputes in both the north and south of the province – the Chaleur Region and Saint John – show that some municipal and regional governments are using the COVID-19 crisis to take advantage of members of CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, New Brunswick and Canada’s largest labour union. CUPE has more than 26,000 members in New Brunswick.
CUPE NB president Brien Watson told the NB Media Co-op today that he is aware that the municipalities are working together on bargaining and that the Higgs PC government is directly involved with the municipalities.
The provincial budget that passed quickly on March 13 with no opposition included a surplus that the NB Federation of Labour says was “achieved on the backs of workers.” Most unionized public sector wages have fallen below the cost of living over the past two collective agreements, meaning that these workers are making less money in real terms.
In February, several weeks before the budget vote and the COVID-19 crisis hit New Brunswick, Watson told the NB Media Co-op that CUPE’s “Breaking the Mandate” campaign is entirely driven by members. “They are tired of taking zeros and ones,” he said, referring to the wage increases in their collective agreement being below the inflation rate. “We’ve done our part and everyone sees the results.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has focused both CUPE and the government to collaborate to deal with the crisis. On March 17, along with several other unions, CUPE announced that it reached an agreement with the provincial government “to improve coordination of our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The CUPE-Government of New Brunswick agreement allows the government to redeploy and reassign all non-critical services employees represented by CUPE to other work locations. The agreement covers about 15,000 workers in 10 CUPE locals across New Brunswick. CUPE nursing home workers have been without a new collective agreement since 2016 and recently had their positions designated essential by the provincial government.
The next day, March 18, CUPE acknowledged the gravity of the COVID-19 crisis by removing its only picket in the province, at the Red Pine solid waste landfill outside of Allardville south of Bathurst. (Read NB Media Co-op’s stories for background on the Alderville dispute.) CUPE’s removal of the picket allowed the locked-out workers to stay at home, complying with the government and New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer’s directive.
In response, on March 19, their employer, the Chaleur Regional Service Commission (CRSC), gave the CUPE workers the labour relations’ equivalent of a punch in the gut: a notice on the CRSC website to hire scabs (“temporary workers”) to replace the CUPE workers they had locked out in mid-February.
Sandy Harding, CUPE Maritimes Regional Director said she was “disgusted” that the Chaleur regional government would use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to openly hire scabs to replace CUPE workers. “This is truly a shameful situation,” she said. “We reached out to the employer and respectfully asked them to pause the lockout during this crisis situation and they quickly refused. We then asked them to bargain (virtually) so that we could come to some resolve and allow these workers the respect they deserve, and the employer’s representative doesn’t really want to talk unless the local agrees to concessions on sick notes and Union leave language. I am disgusted by this whole situation and my heart goes out to the strong workers who are simply standing up for collective agreement language they already have.”
To add insult to injury, CUPE received a letter from the CRSC employer’s new lead negotiator, a Fredericton lawyer who lacks adequate French second-language skills while all the proposal documents on the table are in French and the CUPE team are francophones. The lawyer is a partner in the Cox & Palmer firm in Fredericton that works regularly with the provincial government and has been involved in other CUPE negotiations.
The lawyer’s letter, received the same day the government declared a state of emergency, indicated that an item previously crossed off the employer’s list of demands would be back on the table. He also brought back a demand already rejected by CUPE, to change the contract language to allow the employer to require a doctor’s note on the first sick day taken. The CUPE negotiator, Robert Le Moignan, said the employer’s behaviour is “dictatorial” and demonstrates a lack of respect for the CUPE members.
In southern New Brunswick, the City of Saint John is also escalating a labour dispute with CUPE using COVID-19 as the rationale. As described in a previous NB Media Co-op story, Saint John is experiencing a fiscal crisis because of the lack of revenue generated by large industry in the city, specifically the Irving Oil refinery and the JD Irving pulp and paper companies. The municipal government bargaining team has been demanding that the CUPE Local 18, the outside workers, take no increases in their wages.
On March 19 Saint John mayor Don Darling wrote on his blog that given the COVID-19 situation, he will not support any raises with union groups. Breaking with tradition that a municipal mayor does not vote on motions and does not publicly comment on matters before seeing the documents involved, he declared: “There is a tentative agreement for Local 18 coming to council on Monday night. If there are any raises, bonuses or barriers in this agreement — and I expect there to be — I cannot support it and I will ask councillors to not support it as well.”
Phil Blaney, a Saint John resident, wrote to the NB Media Co-op to express his “complete disagreement” with Darling’s position. “The problems facing Saint John are systemic, institutional and historical,” Blaney said, “and not based on the existence of unions.” He blamed the economic inequalities in the city on its “ongoing 60+ year capitulation to local corporate demands.”
Blaney had a message for workers in the city: “If you are a worker in Saint John and not in a union, if you are in the ‘gig economy,’ I can understand your frustration: no security, no benefits, long hours or no hours. But the system you’re trapped in wasn’t created by unions, it was created by the same entities that created the mess Saint John has been in for the last 60+ years. Unions are not the problem with Saint John, they can however play a key role in finding a just and sustainable solution to our many problems.”
CUPE’s Brien Watson is disappointed at the turn of events in both the Chaleur Region and Saint John. Regarding the CRSC’s bargaining demand for doctor’s notes, he said “who now would be asking to get a doctor’s note to be sick, when the system is being overloaded?” He believes the CRSC management is being “vindictive.”
As for the Saint John situation, Watson is very concerned at mayor Darling’s suggestion that all the municipal workers should be kept to zero wage increases for four years, because municipal sector wages “are so far behind” the cost of living increases.
Brien Watson stressed that during the COVID-19 crisis “everyone in the public sector is stepping up to the plate to serve the public to the best of our capacity so we all get through this together.” What happens after the crisis is over will be the start of a different story.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.