Hours after his government negotiators walked away, again, from the bargaining table, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs threatened to use back-to-work legislation, or the COVID state of emergency order, to force workers back to work if they strike.
CUPE New Brunswick President Stephen Drost says CUPE will not back down. “We are in a struggle for social and economic justice. This is a fight to protect the workers who provide essential services to the people of New Brunswick,” Drost said during a meeting with members on Friday.
CUPE New Brunswick held online strike information sessions last Thursday and Friday for the 22,000 CUPE members in a legal strike position in the province.
In response, the government agreed to three more days of bargaining starting on Sunday that ended Tuesday night. During bargaining, CUPE moved 8% off their initial 4-year demand of 20% over 4 years but the Government moved only moved up 2.25%.
“It’s absurd. The conservatives want to force workers to take below cost of living wages, even if they already are the lowest paid of the lowest paid public service workers in Canada,” said Drost. “To top it all, Higgs still expects a major concession!”
On late Wednesday afternoon, a strike seemed imminent. “CUPE has done all it can to settle this without disruption, but he is simply not hearing the call to treat front-line workers with fairness and dignity. He is pushing workers on strike, and that will happen very soon. Enough is enough,” said Drost.
On Oct. 22 at the CUPE NB members’ meeting, CUPE Maritimes Regional Director Sandy Harding explained how the strike would be organized. Harding sits with the provincial leadership on the central bargaining team.
CUPE’s central bargaining team consists of the seven CUPE local presidents from Part I, II and III of the public service who bargain with Treasury Board, one observer from Part IV locals who bargain with provincial Crown corporations, CUPE Maritimes Regional Director Harding, CUPE New Brunswick President Drost, and CUPE staff.
In preparation for an upcoming strike, CUPE set up 14 centralized strike headquarters throughout the province, with seven or eight satellite sites. The strike headquarters are the picket line and communications hub.
The CUPE central bargaining team sends information to the strike headquarters, who then communicate with the members. Feedback and information from the members will flow through the strike headquarters back to the bargaining team. Information for members will be posted on the CUPE NB website, including a map with the locations of the strike / picket line headquarters.
Every picket location will have a picket captain. Members are encouraged to stay in communication with their picket captains, know their assigned headquarters, and know their place in the phone tree to communicate with other members.
When members withdraw their service, the picket line becomes their new workplace. Members will go to their headquarters to sign in and out for picket duty and sign their paperwork for strike pay. The picket captains will coordinate the pickets.
Much of the communication will be by cell phone, through an app called Signal that CUPE has asked its members to download to be ready for instruction. CUPE is also supporting a buddy system so that members without a cell phone or computer can stay informed.
Some CUPE members are designated essential workers and will not be permitted to strike. Those designations were agreed months ago, and designated workers will continue to go to work.
Harding had a message for any member who is not a designated worker but considering crossing the picket line to go to work: “I ask you to reconsider. Those people out on the line are fighting for you and for your fair wages. Crossing the picket weakens everybody. You have to think about when the labour dispute is over, how other people will feel about you crossing a line and going in to work. I’m asking you not to be a scab.”
Harding said CUPE has a strike plan with many options. “We have a plan A, B, C, D, E, F. We are being strategic, and we may implement one plan and then divert to another plan extremely quickly, which is why CUPE is asking members to be informed and ready to receive information at a moment’s notice.”
“We need to be nimble, you need to understand that,” Harding told members. “You may be told one thing and then a half an hour later, you’re going to be told something else. And this is about strategy. This is not because we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s because we know exactly what we’re doing.”
Harding said that the public support for CUPE workers “is phenomenal.” She encouraged members to have conversations about why they are striking, “letting people know what this means to you, that you have been these frontline heroes that not only held this system together with band aids during the pandemic, but also we’ve had issues well before the pandemic, and you’ve held these systems together, and that you’ve supported them, and now you need their support.”
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op.
Access all of NB Media Co-op’s coverage of the CUPE strike here.
Read all about the the events leading up to the strike here.