The Higgs government’s standing offer at the bargaining table of a zero-wage increase is worsening relations with many public sector workers, including more than 4,000 Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) in the New Brunswick health care system.
New Brunswick is the only province with a government that refuses to recognize LPNs as nurses. In 2019, the Higgs’ government stalled its participation in a Joint Job Evaluation process to adjust recognition and wages for the 2,000 LPNs represented by CUPE Local 1252, despite a promise in the collective agreement. By stopping the process, the government is avoiding fair compensation for the LPNs.
Norma Robinson, President of CUPE 1252, pointed out at a press conference on January 25 that the health care system relies heavily on the work of LPNs for hospital and extra-mural care. “We are on the verge of a recruitment and retention crisis. When will government act to improve their wages and working conditions?” asked Robinson. The CUPE 1252 contract expired in June 2019.
More than 800 LPNs will retire over the next five years, and not enough new LPNs will graduate in New Brunswick during that time to fill the positions.
At the press conference, Robinson demanded that the government immediately complete the LPN job evaluation process, recognize that LPNs have the right to be called nurses, and recognize the value of their work by compensating them on par with the other Atlantic provinces. LPNs in New Brunswick make on average 14 per cent less than LPNs in PEI, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Recently, LPNs have raised their concerns with media, on how there could be an exodus of workers if nothing is done, and I agree: if the government fails to act, the staffing situation will worsen,” said Robinson.
During the press conference, Robinson condemned what she claimed are ongoing “divide-and-conquer” strategies used by politicians and right-wing news media to blame the LPNs’ unions for poor working conditions: “Let me be clear, management and government decide working conditions, and unions push back during bargaining to get fairness and recognition for all. We invite all our members to push government out of its inaction,” she added.
The government lack of action has stimulated divisions within the LPN ranks and a move by some to seek different union representation. Earlier this month, the Labour and Employment Board ruled against those LPNs seeking to leave CUPE. The Board found that CUPE had spent considerable time and effort to convince the government to recognize the expanded scope of practice by LPNs and more pay. Consequently, the LPNs will stay with CUPE.
An NB Media Co-op story last month described how a wealth gap in New Brunswick and across Canada has increased during the pandemic, the result of decades of regressive tax measures. The wealthiest people and most profitable businesses in the province are contributing less in tax, leaving the government with fewer resources to pay for public services, including public sector wages.
In response to a question about the wealth gap put to CUPE union leaders at the press conference, Sharon Teare, President of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, said that there’s money still being made during the pandemic, and some of it should be diverted “from the corporations making mega-dollars to the workers who have been on the front lines since this pandemic began.”
Teare says the government is attempting to create divisions within the union and between unions. Referring to several recent instances of the government separating union groups, she said: “trying to dissect and cause division in one of the largest unions, I think it’s absolutely clear what alternative motive this government has.”
The government is “trying to label us as bad union people,” said Teare. On the contrary she said, “we provide a proud service within our communities, we are community members, we pay our taxes and we go into work every day.” She added that the government will not succeed to divide union members within their sectors “because we will stand united and strong and we won’t allow it to happen.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is the largest public sector union in Canada, representing more than 28,000 workers in New Brunswick.
Susan O’Donnell is a writer for the NB Media Co-op.