A group of 23 workers locked-out of their workplace in the rural Chaleur region of northeastern New Brunswick is in a unique situation during the pandemic. They are the only members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Canada locked-out by their employer because of a labour dispute. CUPE represents more than 700,000 members across Canada, including more than 26,000 in New Brunswick.
Earlier this week, the CUPE national office in Ottawa re-issued an appeal to CUPE locals across the country to send letters of support and financial contributions to the locked-out New Brunswick members of CUPE local 4193. In the almost three months since the lockout began, CUPE 4193 members have received numerous messages of solidarity and financial support from unionized workers in the province and across Canada, as well as strong support from the local community in the Allardville area.
The Chaleur Regional Services Commission (CRSC) issued the lockout notice to the CUPE members in mid-February. All are employed by the CRSC solid waste landfill in Allardville near Bathurst that services northeastern New Brunswick, including the Acadian peninsula. To keep the landfill open, the CRSC has been hiring scabs (replacement workers). According to CUPE, the scabs include family members of the landfill management team.
Hiring scabs is strongly discouraged by the United Nations International Labour Organization because it undermines the collective bargaining process. Hiring scabs is illegal in Quebec and British Columbia, and the federal NDP is planning to introduce a private-members bill to ban the practice nationally.
Since the start, the lock-out and hiring of scabs has been strongly denounced by CUPE representatives in Ottawa and New Brunswick, who have repeatedly appealed to the CRSC board – local mayors and community representatives – to return to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair settlement with the CUPE workers. The collective agreement expired in 2017.
The lockout happened during bargaining when the union refused to accept changes to their collective agreement including a requirement for a worker to produce a doctor’s note the first sick day taken, when requested by the employer. During the past three months, the employer has been slow to return to the bargaining table. “In the midst of a global pandemic, their employer is still trying to break our members’ spirits,” states the CUPE national office appeal.
Serge Plourde, a labourer at the Allardville landfill and president of CUPE local 4193 told the NB Media Co-op yesterday that the morale of his members is good, despite the fact that bargaining is slow and the employer is not negotiating seriously.
In March, the CRSC employer brought in a new negotiator from Fredericton. He is a lawyer without French-language skills, even though the union team is francophone and the bargaining documents are in French. The lawyer’s first letter to the union did not acknowledge agreements previously signed-off in negotiations.
The locked-out CUPE 4193 members include labourers, heavy equipment operators, a secretary, security officials and other workers required to safely operate the regional landfill. The scabs lack the same level of skills as the CUPE members, many of whom have worked at the site for more than 20 years.
Yesterday, the CUPE New Brunswick office issued a news bulletin advising that the landfill’s environmental technologist is locked-out of the landfill site and unable to conduct environmental testing during the spring thaw to detemine the risk of environmental hazards. “It’s only a matter of time, in a very rainy spring” without conducting the proper environmental tests at the landfill, to see contaminated spills in the Nepisiguit River, said the technologist Yvon Richard.
In response to this latest development, Steve Drost, first vice-president of CUPE NB, wrote on Facebook: “Shame on these reckless, dangerous anti-labour elected officials. Definitely an abuse of power, and their actions are putting their communities’ health at risk. End the lockout and negotiate with dignity, respect and fairness.”
For our earlier coverage on the CUPE 4193 situation, go here.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board