CUPE New Brunswick president Steve Drost said Premier Higgs’ refusal to bargain fairly could force more than 22,000 CUPE members across the province into a strike vote in September. The Premier could end this today by settling on fair wages, says Drost.
Currently close to 12,000 CUPE members in New Brunswick are in a legal strike position and that number will rise to 22,000 in coming weeks. Some of the union members have been at the bargaining table and without a contract for four years. In May, Drost issued a 100-day ultimatum to the premier: settle on fair wages or face a province-wide labour action after Labour Day.
More than 200 CUPE members attended an online press conference on July 19, the 50-day mark of the ultimatum. At the event, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn confirmed the solidarity of his 280,000 members in Ontario with CUPE members in New Brunswick. The CUPE Ontario executive voted to donate $50,000 to the CUPE NB strike fund. Hahn noted that the national CUPE strike fund is currently more than $130 million. CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees) is the largest public sector union in Canada, representing 700,000 members across the country.
Hahn said his Ontario union is “inspired” by the actions of CUPE New Brunswick. “It’s easy to feel beaten down,” he said. “Our members are exhausted. Many have been working at a breakneck pace through a pandemic. Some of them slept in their garages, because they didn’t want to infect their families. What is so inspiring about what’s happening in New Brunswick is that workers are finally remembering the sense of their own power.”
“It is about time somebody stood up and looked at government in the eye and just basically said, ‘How dare you expect these workers to take less, when in fact, they deserve so much more’,” Hahn said. The province’s offer is zero in the first year and one percent in subsequent years. That offer is less than the cost of living that has been rising every year, and accepting it would mean losing money in real terms.
Drost said that when he and Sandy Harding, CUPE Maritimes Regional Director, met with Premier Higgs several weeks ago, the Premier did not seem to take them seriously. “We did let him know that CUPE locals are more than prepared to sit down and negotiate again, respectfully, said Drost. “And if the province is prepared to come and actually discuss wages, as opposed to trying to freeze those wages… this could be resolved this afternoon.”
Last week, CUPE front-line workers spoke out about the government’s $100M big business giveaway. At the media event, Drost noted that two weeks ago, “Premier Higgs has decided that he’s going to give an additional $5 million to the mills on an annual basis through an NB Power buyback program.” The subsidies to companies including J.D. Irving are continuing, despite NB Power’s growing debt. Drost said that it comes down to choices, and “the government is choosing very deliberately to take on the public sector workers and not treat them fairly.”
The CUPE executive is meeting regularly with CUPE local presidents to discuss how the strike votes can be coordinated. CUPE is member-driven, with each CUPE local having the autonomy as to whether or not to call a strike vote. A two-day coordination meeting for CUPE locals will be held on August 9 and 10.
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op.