About 22,000 public sector workers in New Brunswick can go on strike in October if an agreement is not reached with the government.
On Wednesday, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in New Brunswick announced the result of the final strike vote by CUPE local 1190, general labour and trades. Over the past month 10 locals with expired agreements have voted, with 94 per cent of ballots cast in favour of strike action. If the government does not back down on its refusal to pay fair wages, job action will start.
The 94 per cent strike vote mandate shows that CUPE workers are fed up. Low wages have led to massive recruitment and retention challenges in many sectors, especially health, with potential new workers not attracted to these positions and qualified workers moving to other provinces that pay higher wages. The added work and stress of the pandemic has convinced some front-line CUPE workers to retire early or leave their profession for a less stressful occupation.
As a result, many CUPE workers work “short” – without the full staff contingent required to do the job properly. Continuously working short causes frustration because workers can’t do the job they were trained to do, and the public does not receive the service it deserves. The situation can cause burnout.
The pressure to find a negotiated solution escalated on Tuesday, Oct. 5 when the Higgs government announced that public sector employees without full COVID-19 vaccination by November 19 will be put on unpaid leave. That leaves only six weeks for the two parties to reach an agreement.
What’s the situation at the bargaining table?
The two sides remain far apart. Many workers have been without a contract for more than two, three or four years. Most previous CUPE contracts were settled for less than the cost-of-living increase, with successive governments pleading poverty. Real wages for CUPE workers, compared to the cost of living, have been shrinking for more than two decades.
CUPE NB is asking for a five per cent wage increase over four years, so 20 per cent. This would include the cost of living (almost 10 per cent) plus the amount lost after decades of insufficient increases. CUPE NB issued a video explaining how even the 20 per cent increase amounts to little more than a bag of apples.
The government’s initial offer was a non-negotiable three per cent over four years. After the end of the 100-day ultimatum issued by CUPE NB to Premier Higgs, the government upped its offer to five per cent over four years but also demanded new concessions unacceptable to the union.
When can CUPE call a strike?
All CUPE workers have a contract–a collective agreement–with their government or Crown corporation employer. In addition to rate of pay and working conditions, the contract also states that strikes or lockouts will not occur. When a contract expires, such as the current situation, the old contract continues to be in force except strikes become possible.
Going on strike rarely happens after a contract expires because in our system of collective bargaining, CUPE must go through many steps with the government to reach an agreement for a new contract. These steps include mediation, conciliation, and intervention by an arbitrator, all of which take years and give both sides time to reach agreement. If CUPE were to call a strike before all the steps have been taken, they would be doing so illegally and would be subject to huge fines every day the workers are striking.
Having workers in all 10 CUPE locals vote to strike – the 94 per cent strike mandate – is one of the last steps in the process. We are currently in the next step after that, a week-long cooling off period for the last local that voted. The final step – for CUPE to tell its members to strike – could happen next week.
What would a strike look like and where could it happen?
Going on strike–withdrawing your labour that was agreed in a contract–can take many forms, including refusing to perform tasks outside your job description, insisting on taking mandatory breaks on time, refusing overtime, and walking off the job and mounting a picket line outside the workplace. All these are strike actions, and to be effective, workers must strike strategically in a coordinated action.
CUPE workers in a legal strike position live and work in many communities across the province, in many occupations from teachers’ aides to licenced practical nurses, custodians in public buildings, porters in hospitals, trades people and many more.
CUPE NB has been working for months to coordinate job actions with all its locals in all its locations. If an agreement can’t be reached within the next week, CUPE NB will likely call for job action only for certain communities and occupations. The union will put the pressure on the government where it will be the most effective.
Will workers on strike be paid?
Workers who keep working during job action – by taking mandatory breaks and refusing tasks outside their job description for example – will continue to be paid by their employers. Workers who walk off the job will not collect wages, so the initial job actions will be designed to keep the workers at work collecting their wages.
Any CUPE locals that walk off the job will be costly for the union, as CUPE must pay “strike pay” to the striking workers. CUPE NB has its own strike fund and can access the national strike fund. CUPE is the largest public sector union in the country and CUPE national president Mark Hancock has visited New Brunswick several times in the past year.
During a CUPE lockout in Allardville near Bathurst last year, Hancock said that the New Brunswick workers had the full support of the national union and that CUPE national has a “strong, healthy strike fund.”
In July this year, CUPE Ontario president Steve Hahn said that the national strike fund is more than $130 million, and he announced that CUPE Ontario had donated $50,000 to the CUPE NB strike fund.
$130 million sounds like a lot of money but if all 22,000 workers in a legal strike position walked off the job, it would cost the union hundreds of thousands of dollars every day, so a full worker province-wide walk-out scenario is unlikely in the short term.
Could the province use strikebreakers (scabs)?
When workers strike and walk off the job, the usual response is for management (non-unionized staff) to replace the striking workers. This is unlikely to happen in the CUPE situation as there are not nearly enough managers, and they do not have the training to do the work.
If CUPE mounts a strike picket outside a place of employment, no other union member – from any union – is allowed to cross. If a union member crosses a picket, there will be severe repercussions, because unions require solidarity from each other.
Strikebreakers are people who replace striking workers. Only two provinces in Canada – Quebec and British Columbia – have made it illegal for employers to hire strikebreakers, or “scabs.” Using scabs destabilizes the whole system of collective bargaining and can lead to significant civil unrest and even violence.
Hiring scabs is legal in New Brunswick. In February last year, the City of Fredericton hired scabs to replace its striking outside workers, members of CUPE local 508. It did not go well for the city: after huge blowback from Fredericton residents, the scabs were sent away, and an agreement was quickly reached with the CUPE 508 workers.
In the current CUPE situation, the government could not afford to hire scabs to replace thousands of front-line workers, and in any case, the wages are so low they would have a hard time finding scabs to do it.
The next weeks will be crucial for CUPE as it charts a path in the strike zone that will be acceptable to its members and gain support from the public. At this point, CUPE is not tipping its hand and so anything can happen next.
The CUPE locals that voted to strike in September could strike today. At a media event on Wednesday, CUPE NB president Steve Drost said one local in an undisclosed location was already taking strike action on the job. October 12 is the first date that CUPE can direct 22,000 members from all 10 locals to strike, although some of that number have been declared essential workers and must remain on the job.
Without a doubt, the province’s threat to put unvaccinated workers on leave without pay by November 19 hugely complicates the situation.
The CUPE decision-makers for the next move will be the presidents of all the CUPE locals involved, working closely with the CUPE NB leadership team: Stephen Drost the president, Sharon Teare the 1st vice-president, Kim Copp the Secretary-Treasurer, and Sandy Harding the CUPE Maritimes regional director.
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op.