Across Canada, most of the people killed by COVID-19 were living in a seniors’ residence or nursing home. To date, no COVID-19 cases have been identified in nursing homes in New Brunswick. However, after decades of continued deterioration under successive provincial governments, this pandemic hit while our nursing homes are, again, in crisis.
The year 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of a struggle with provincial governments by nursing home workers organized and determined to improve the situation in their place of work. Of the 69 nursing homes in New Brunswick, 51 are unionized by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), representing about 4,100 nursing home workers, most of whom are women.
On March 19, the day New Brunswick declared a state of emergency, nursing home worker Sharon Teare, president of CUPE’s New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions (NBCNHU) wrote a message on Facebook: “So proud of our nursing home workers for the remarkable show of unity and solidarity during these unprecedented times. Members are stepping up and assisting each other while ensuring our residents receive the best possible care. PROUD nursing home workers on the frontline are doing what they do best – CARE. While the world stays at home, you put on your uniform and hit the frontline. You are the HEROES of SENIOR CARE!”
A week later, a nursing home worker also wrote on Facebook: “I believe it would be a good time to remind the population, that we are still working even in this dangerous period, and that we still don’t have a contract.” The CUPE nursing home workers contract expired in 2016.
During the last four decades, CUPE nursing home workers in New Brunswick have been fighting to improve the standard of care and working conditions in nursing homes across the province. In their struggle, the workers have achieved gains and wins but also experienced losses and setbacks.
Their story began in 1981 under the PC Hatfield government, when workers at 20 nursing homes across the province won union certification. That year, the new CUPE local 2464 members at the Bethel Nursing Home in Mill Cove in rural Queen’s County organized the first nursing home strike in the province. They were fighting to improve a situation that included practices that endangered the health and safety of the residents, and “long hours, low wages, little training, missed pays, paternalism, intimidation [and] abusive treatment.” Forty years later, very similar concerns continue to exist in New Brunswick nursing homes.
Over the next 20 years, under the McKenna Liberal government and Lord PC government, CUPE nursing home workers achieved some successes in improving conditions in nursing homes. More nursing homes were built to house the increasing number of seniors. In 1989, the Single Entry Point program began. In 1993, the province introduced a Long-Term Care strategy. In 1994, a quality of service program was established to coordinate an overall continuum of appropriate care. Further improvements were made through to 1999, when the government commissioned a review of the Long-Term Care strategy. The review did not investigate the overall system of nursing homes, which, according to the workers, remained very challenging.
In January 2001, the government’s labour market analysis reported a significant shortage of workers in nursing homes. In August that year, CUPE nursing home workers organized a strike to improve the situation. The workers removed their picket and settled only after the Lord government agreed with CUPE’s demand to commission a study on the quality of care in nursing homes. The resulting 2002 report found that nursing homes were in crisis and the situation had grown worse over the previous decade. However after the report was released, the Lord government made few of the required improvements.
In October 2006, the Graham Liberal government was elected on a platform promise to raise the hours of care in nursing homes to 3.5 hours per resident per day, a recommendation made by a previous government-funded study. That promise to this day has not been kept. In 2008, CUPE nursing home workers signed a collective agreement with their employer, the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes, that included four years of pay increases to bring them to parity with their counterparts in hospitals. Two days after the agreement was signed, the Liberal government unilaterally imposed a two-year wage freeze for nursing home workers.
In 2009, several months after the NB Media Co-op began to publish online, the struggles of nursing home workers was one of its first stories. To avoid a strike that year, the Graham government brought in the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act, which CUPE believed violated the Canadian Charter of Rights. A court case in Saskatchewan on the same topic was making its way to the Supreme Court, and CUPE decided to hold off its challenge and await the Supreme Court decision.
In October 2010 the Alward PC government was elected. Two years later, the CUPE nursing home workers contract expired but remained in place when negotiations for a new contract were not successful. As well, the Alward PC government did not follow through on the promises made in their 2010 election platform to improve the situation of seniors in nursing homes.
In October 2014, the Gallant Liberal government was elected. In November, the CUPE nursing home workers signed a retroactive six-year collective agreement ending in October 2016 that included no wage increase for two years and one percent for the next four years, well below the cost of living and falling even further behind parity with their counterparts in hospitals. CUPE made the wage concession after the government pleaded with the union to consider the province’s challenging financial situation.
In January 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Saskatchewan law barring the right to strike was unconstitutional. CUPE asked the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board to review if the 2009 NB Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act complied with the Charter, and in December 2018, Labour Court Justice Robert Breen released his decision that it did not. The government’s Act was null and void.
In November 2018, the Higgs PC minority government came to power, supported by the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB). Premier Higgs has been openly critical of CUPE. PANB leader Kris Austin has also made disparaging remarks about the CUPE leadership. Their negative attitude toward CUPE did not bode well for the nursing home workers.
Indeed, 2019 was a year of conflict between nursing home workers and the government, as the workers without a contract continued their attempts to negotiate improvements in the standard of care and working conditions in nursing homes. The Higgs PC government would not agree to increase wages in line with the cost of living, even as the low wages in the nursing home sector meant that hundreds of jobs were unfilled, causing increasing stress for the existing workers.
On March 8, 2019, CUPE delivered strike notices to its nursing homes across the province. Instead of returning to the bargaining table, the government went to Moncton to secure a court order to prevent the strike. At this point, the workers had no choice but to organize rallies to raise public awareness of their plight and the situation of nursing homes in the province.
On March 12, the workers organized a rally outside the Premier’s office. On March 16, they organized a rally outside the Fredericton courthouse at which they spoke to the NB Media Co-op about the shortage of workers and the stress it was causing in nursing homes. On March 19, the workers organized a rally for fair wages outside the Legislature. On April 12, they organized a rally outside the Premier’s office with 500 members and supporters. CUPE national president Mark Hancock travelled from Ottawa to give a message of solidarity to the New Brunswick workers.
However all the efforts of the nursing home workers to rally support failed to convince the government to change its course. In her role as president of the NBCNHU, Sharon Teare had been trying for months to meet with Dorothy Shepard, Minister of Social Development, who had postponed several meetings. Finally, on May 1, Labour Day, Teare and colleagues occupied the offices of the Minister of Social Development to demand a meeting. “The occupation is one of my proudest moments,” Teare told the NB Media Co-op in early March. She had gone as far as a public sector union leader could go to stand up for her workers.
On May 30, a motion passed in the Legislature to support binding arbitration for nursing home workers. The Higgs PC government ignored it and continued to use the courts to block the collective bargaining process. However finally in July Justice DeWare ruled that the government had until January 2, 2020 to make its law for nursing home workers compliant with the Charter right to strike. It seemed the workers had finally won the battle.
It was not to be. On Dec. 20, the PC government, with the support of PANB, passed Bill 17. The law, which remains in place today, created a new process for declaring nursing-home workers as essential during a labour dispute. It also limits how an arbitrator can decide on wage increases for the workers. Bill 17 is a huge obstacle for CUPE nursing home workers going forward. The new law is probably the biggest setback in 40 years for CUPE nursing home workers in their struggle to end the crisis in nursing homes.
Through all this time, nursing home workers have maintained their approach of care and consideration for nursing home residents. The same day Bill 17 passed in the Legislature, the NB Media Co-op published Sharon Teare’s “Letter to the families and loved ones of nursing home residents.” Teare wrote: “We are caught between a government pushing us to do more with less, and our frail seniors, who need more quality, unrushed hands-on care. That’s why we, through our union, campaigned over the last 20 years for better hours of care for your loved ones. That’s why we are ready to challenge this government. Rest assured, no matter what actions we take, we will never jeopardize the safety and well-being of the residents we love and serve.”
Less than three months later, the COVID-19 virus entered the province. Today nursing home workers are hard at work, aligned with the government in the shared fight against the pandemic to protect the people most vulnerable to the virus. On March 28 Sharon Teare wrote on Facebook: “Nursing Home Workers are like lighthouses shining out across a thousand tomorrows. We are all beacons of hope drawing strength from one another ????❤???? #CUPESTRONG”
How will the Higgs PC government treat the CUPE nursing home workers when the crisis is over? It will be the next chapter in their story that so far has taken 40 years to unfold.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.