During the pandemic, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is trying to squeeze income from front-line public sector workers while at the same time, the most wealthy people in the province are increasing their fortunes dramatically.
More than 13,000 hospital workers and educational support workers, as well as other workers in New Brunswick represented by CUPE, the largest public sector union in the province, have contracts in various stages of negotiations.
During his Dec. 11 meeting with CUPE leaders, Premier Higgs confirmed that the government’s wage offer at the bargaining table will be a three per cent increase in wages over a contract of four years: zero (a wage freeze) in the first year, and one percent in each of the remaining three years.
In November, the Canadian Centre for Tax Fairness published a report showing that Canada’s billionaires are doing very well during the pandemic, particularly over the past six months this year.
Among the billionaires listed in the report are two from New Brunswick. Between April and October this year, the wealth of James Irving, owner of JD Irving, rose 36 per cent, from 6 billion to 8.1 billion.
The wealth of Arthur Irving, owner of Irving Oil, rose 32 per cent, from $3.3 billion to $4.4 billion over the past six months.
The report revealed that while Canada’s wealthiest billionaires became even wealthier through the pandemic, “millions of ordinary Canadians and small businesses have struggled to stay afloat.”
The wealth gap in New Brunswick and across Canada is the result of decades of regressive tax measures, particularly lower rates of tax on business and capital. The most wealthy people and most profitable businesses in the province are contributing less to the public purse, leaving the government with fewer resources to pay for public services, including public sector wages.
During a media event following the meeting with the Premier, CUPE New Brunswick president Brien Watson pointed out that New Brunswick now has the lowest median wages in the country, according to Statistics Canada. “Investing in the front lines and in ordinary people must be the new mandate,” he said.
Sandy Harding, director of CUPE’s Maritime Office, said that the offer from Premier Higgs was “very disheartening,” particularly when front line workers represented by CUPE “have worked tirelessly during the pandemic and have kept this province going.”
Harding said CUPE recently polled its members after learning of the Higgs wage freeze proposal, and within 24 hours they received more than 1,100 responses. Members reported being exhausted, with their mental health at risk.
Norma Robinson is president of the CUPE’s New Brunswick Council of Hospital Unions, representing nearly 10,000 members. She said they are “not happy” with the government’s offer and “it’s a slap in the face for the work they have done during this pandemic.” The hospital workers have been at work throughout the pandemic. “They are in stressful times, there is uncertainty, they are frustrated, they are burnt-out.”
Theresa McAllister represents CUPE’s 3,900 Educational Support Staff. Her members are in negotiations, have a report from a conciliator, and are looking to return to the bargaining table. She said Robinson’s comments apply also to educational workers. “They are exhausted, mentally, and physically.”
McAllister said that before the pandemic, Premier Higgs was always “expecting us to do more with less.” Now, during the pandemic, educational support staff have even more duties and tasks, despite being paid for the same amount of hours.
In March this year, the NB Media Co-op reported how the provincial and regional governments in New Brunswick were using the COVID-19 crisis to undermine CUPE members in New Brunswick. Now the union’s leaders are fighting the same threat again, at the bargaining table.
After the new contracts are negotiated and an offer is put to CUPE members, it will be up to the members to decide to accept or reject the offer or take job action. “CUPE is a grassroots organization, not a top-down union,” explained Watson.
“The Premier has to recognize how workers who are integral to the pandemic response cannot be ignored to achieve a strong economic recovery,” said Harding. “Our economy will need wage increases for our members to help stimulate the recovery, and our members deserve a fair wage increase.”
Research has demonstrated that the best way to protect wages and decrease the gap between rich and poor is to have a high number of unionized workers. Unions reduce inequality and protect the ability of workers on low and middle wages to obtain a fair share of economic growth.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents more than 28,000 workers in New Brunswick and is the largest public sector union in Canada.
Susan O’Donnell is a reporter with the NB Media Co-op.