CUPE members are losing money every year because their wages do not keep up with the rising cost of living. Hundreds of union positions are unfilled as qualified New Brunswickers choose to work outside the province where wages are fair.
Major recruitment and retention problems mean that many public sector workplaces in New Brunswick do not have enough staff, and existing staff are struggling to fill the gaps.
Yesterday, CUPE leadership said this situation must end, the time has come to draw the line.
CUPE NB president Steve Drost announced at a media event on Friday that Premier Higgs has until Labour Day in September to fix recruitment and retention issues and bring fair wages to the 21,860 CUPE members in bargaining. More than 8,580 workers are now in deadlock, and more than 13,280 are headed for conciliation in the next two months.
“It is totally wrong that these workers are being forced to choose between survival and dignity,” said Drost. “If the Premier and his cabinet refuse to act in a reasonable and responsible way, once these 100 days have passed, CUPE members will have to mount a province wide coordinated action. The Premier is forcing job action on the citizens of New Brunswick.”
“This ultimatum as far as we are concerned is the most responsible way to get this government to act,” Drost continued. “By September, most residents will already be vaccinated. A hundred days is more than generous, considering that most of these workers have been waiting up to four years to get a contract.”
Wages are losing buying power
According to Statistics Canada, since 2017 the cost of living has gone up every year. A basket of goods that cost a hundred dollars in 2017 would cost $107.50 today. Wages that stay the same are losing buying power.
CUPE workers with contracts that expired in 2017 have not had a cost of living increase since then. According to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, a worker who made $20 an hour in 2017 should be making $21.52 an hour today to keep up with the cost of living.
The situation is even more difficult for CUPE’s casual workers. Because of unfair labour practices by the provincial government, many casual employees in the public sector are not receiving full pay for their classification. Some have been serving the public for many years, in some cases more than 20 years, and receiving only 80% of the wages and none of the benefits earned by a permanent employee.
Casual worker wages are the lowest paid, and they are struggling the most to get by. A CUPE casual cleaning attendant who made $14.03 per hour in 2017 should be making at least $15.10 per hour today just to keep up.
“Who is the union?” asked Drost. “It could be your brother, or your sister, your neighbor, your friend, your family, your parents, your partner. Public sector workers all contribute to the local economy, we’re the backbone of the economy. What few dollars we do get we spend in our local economy.”
A social safety net requires investment in public services
Drost believes that continuing to freeze public sector wages, creating “massive” recruitment and retention issues, will cause considerable harm to this province.
He referenced a recent study finding that not addressing poverty and housing issues is costing New Brunswick $1.4 billion annually. To start rebuilding the social safety net for everyone in New Brunswick, the government needs to start investing in public services.
At a recent meeting of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, Drost learned that although provinces across Canada have taken serious financial hits during the pandemic, the Atlantic provinces fared much better. In fact, New Brunswick is coming out of the pandemic in one of the strongest situations.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to choices,” said Drost. “If this government continues to choose to de-invest in public services, in the long run, that’s going to be fewer services for our children, fewer services for our families.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents more than 28,000 public sector workers in New Brunswick.
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.