A long-running labour relations dispute at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and Saint John appears to be nearing a conclusion. On Feb. 21, both sides of the bargaining table agreed on a tentative first contract for the Professional and Technical Staff Union (PTSU). Members will participate in information webinars next week and on April 28 will begin online voting to ratify the contract.
The process to reach a collective agreement for the workers at the University has been ongoing for almost seven years. PTSU was certified by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) in March 2013 and a year later began to bargain for their first contract. A year after that, PSAC held an organizing drive to unionize UNB staff not part of the existing PTSU group. In response, UNB filed a court challenge. In April 2017, Justice Garnett of the Court of Queen’s Bench rejected UNB’s application to deny union certification to PSAC.
In her decision, Justice Garnett stated that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right of workers to unionize under “freedom of association” and ordered UNB to pay $2,500 towards PSAC’s legal fees. At the time, Jeannie Baldwin, Regional Executive Vice-President of PSAC’s Atlantic Region, said that “UNB was using the courts to stall our organizing drive at the University of New Brunswick.”
The bargaining process since the favourable court decision has been arduous. Most recently, the two parties were in conciliation, a process to bring them together with a neutral third party. On Feb. 14, PTSU members held a rally on the UNB campus, supported by members of other campus unions. The tentative agreement was reached the following week.
Negotiating a first contract is often a lengthy process and when the PTSU bargaining started in 2014, labour legislation was not on their side. However in 2017, New Brunswick adopted “first contract” legislation, one of the last provinces to do so. Bill 4, an Act to Amend the Industrial Relations Act, was introduced by the Gallant government in October 2017 and adopted by the Legislature that December.
The New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL) president at the time, Patrick Colford, called the new legislation “a great victory for the labour movement” and the culmination of decades of advocacy work by union activists. The new legislation meant that in New Brunswick, “employers will no longer be able to refuse to recognize a certified union’s authority to negotiate a first collective agreement.”
The PTSU-UNB tentative first contract provides for wage increases retroactive to July 2016 and will expire in June 2022. The ratification vote ends on May 6.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.