More than 8,000 members of five CUPE locals in New Brunswick are now deadlocked in contract negotiations with the Higgs government. The options moving forward in a deadlock are limited: either both sides agree to binding arbitration, or the CUPE locals can call for a strike vote.
Over the past month, CUPE New Brunswick has held three media events to highlight the challenges the union is facing.
Many CUPE members have been without a contract for almost four years, and for many years before that, public sector workers have been losing ground in real wages. However, CUPE spokespersons say their members do not want to strike, they want to protect precarious public services during the pandemic.
The Higgs government is claiming it cannot afford to pay public sector workers a fair wage: the wage offer at the bargaining table is zero in the first year and one percent for the following years in the contract.
A CUPE spokesperson explained that in previous deadlock situations, most CUPE locals have asked for binding arbitration, but the government has always avoided it because “binding arbitration usually results in something they don’t like [a higher wage settlement].”
Steve Drost was elected CUPE New Brunswick president at the virtual Annual General Meeting on April 24 and was immediately thrust into this polarized situation. “I came into this eyes wide open,” he said.
“I wanted to do this [CUPE president] because I just felt it was the right thing to do. I believe in fairness, I believe in social and economic justice,” Drost explained. “And I believe that this particular government has no respect for public sector workers or public sector unions, because it’s happening not only with CUPE New Brunswick but with all public sector unions.”
CUPE’s real adversary is corporate power. Powerful corporate lobby efforts have resulted in decades of austerity governments, squeezing public services and lowering corporate taxes. This has led to a steep fall in the revenues need for the government to pay for the public services that New Brunswickers want and need.
In his recent rabble article, former Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives director Bruce Campbell wrote: “The lost tax revenue in Canada from 2000 to 2019 amounted to almost $50 billion annually. Since 1980, the tax rate on the top income bracket has dropped from 43 per cent to 33 per cent, and corporate taxes are down from 36 per cent to 15 per cent. Tax breaks on income from investments have also become more generous over time.”
In addition to the drop in corporate tax revenues is the growth of tax havens, countries where wealthy people and corporations funnel their income to avoid paying taxes in Canada. A Hill Times article about the 2019 report by the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that “the Canadian government is missing out on as much as $25-billion a year in revenues from hundreds of billions of dollars in taxable income due to an inability to crack down on overseas tax havens.”
According to a recent NB Media Co-op story the Canadian Centre for Tax Fairness published a report showing that Canada’s billionaires are doing very well during the pandemic. Between April and October 2020, 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.
CUPE representative Mike Davidson has highlighted how the Irving family seems to have a powerful hold on the current government. He claimed that Premier Higgs “put ministerial ethics aside to push [the New Brunswick Energy and Utility Board (EUB)] to raise heating oil and gas prices on ordinary people to help the Irvings’ profit margins.” Davidson added: “He bends over backwards for the Irvings and does not care about the rising cost of living to the rest of New Brunswickers, including the increased housing, construction costs, food, heating, etc. Yet, most workers are seeing their buying power diminish year after year.”
Sandy Harding, CUPE regional director for the Maritimes, believes it is “painfully obvious that this premier does not respect public service workers, does not respect the leadership that represents them in the unions, does not respect sometimes the public services themselves.”
The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the public service systems, said Harding. “We’ve been ringing these alarm bells for years. The CUPE locals have been coming forward and ringing these alarm bells to say, look, there’s a problem with this system, please listen to us. And this just isn’t about us protecting our jobs. This is about us protecting public services. I think this premier has such disdain for unions because we speak the truth.”
Harding said she is motivated to fight for public services because she wants her five children to stay, work and be productive in New Brunswick. “My hope in all of this is that Premier Higgs will listen and will respect the public service.”
Like Harding, Drost said: “At the end of the day, I’m doing it because I’m a taxpayer. I’m a father, I’m a grandfather. And I want to make sure that my family and their children can have services, good, robust healthy public services. That’s how you build strong economies. And that’s how you bring people here into the province. So, I’m doing it, because that’s the way I was raised, is to stand up for fairness.”
So, what’s next for CUPE? The deadlock situation means that, if the government refuses a request by a CUPE local for binding arbitration, the local will be able to call a strike vote. If local calls a strike vote, and if the members vote in favour, the local will be able to ask its members to strike.
A strike can take many forms and forming a picket line is only one option. There are many ways that organized workers can withdraw their labour. Each CUPE local will make that decision individually on how they want to move forward after members vote to strike.
To prepare their members, CUPE is currently offering strike training. Drost explained that CUPE members do not want a strike, but the government is leading these CUPE locals “down the path where they will be in a legal position to take a strike vote.” He said that all the members of the five CUPE locals in deadlock “are feeling extremely frustrated, devalued, not respected. And they haven’t had a fair wage increase in almost 12 years.”
When asked if he believes his members will decide to strike, Drost said: “Members are doing what they need to do to try and protect their future.”
Theresa McAllister is president of CUPE Local 2745 representing close to 4400 educational and clerical support staff in New Brunswick schools and School District offices. Local 2745 is one of the five CUPE locals in deadlock.
“Our last contract expired back in February 2018. After almost three years of fruitless negotiations, it is clear that the government has led us towards an impasse,” McAllister said.
“But we don’t want to go on strike. We don’t want to take the members out on strike. Nobody, you know, in this point of our pandemic, is looking forward to that. We’re just asking that a decent fair collective agreement be presented, and we try to work together.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is the largest union in New Brunswick, representing more than 28,000 members in the province. CUPE is also the largest union in Canada, with 700,000 members across the country.
*note this article was changed on May 26 to correct a quote by Mark Davidson.
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op.
Access all of NB Media Co-op’s coverage of the events leading up to the CUPE strike here.
Read all of NB Media Co-op’s coverage of the 2021 CUPE strike here.