Communications during a strike almost always boils down to a battle for public support. That is certainly the case in the current conflict between the Higgs government and CUPE. Also as is normal, the sides are blaming each other.
Now, with the strike into its first full week, Premier Higgs has invoked a lockout for some employees and is threatening to invoke emergency legislation to force them all back. He really needs to consider the wisdom of such a move.
If he goes ahead, he will probably say he’s doing it reluctantly but has no choice because he is acting in the best interest of the public. He’ll reference COVID, but I doubt people will buy it. And ironically, COVID is part of the reason.
It was, after all, COVID that brought home to many of us just how invaluable, overworked, and underpaid many of those people now on picket lines are. So, if Premier Higgs thinks he’ll sway public opinion to his side with a heavy-handed show of force, or by laying all the blame for disruptions on them, he may be misreading the room.
New Brunswickers have a strong sense of fairness, and in this one I don’t see the majority agreeing with the government line that the union is being irresponsible. True the strike will continue to be inconvenient, but inconvenience is kind of the purpose of a strike. That’s the leverage unions have, as guaranteed in the Constitution. There are designated employees who will have to work to ensure safety, but to go beyond that and order them all back is serious business.
From what I can see, the union is winning the public relations battle. Judging by social media, what I am hearing when the topic comes up, and the steady stream of beeping horns of cars passing by on Main Street in Fredericton when I went out to get the cover photo for this blog, public support is substantial. Accounts of life trying to raise a family on poor wages that haven’t increased in years despite costs rising all around them, are resonating much moreso than the government line that taxpayers can’t afford to meet the union demands, or that they are unreasonable. Mind you not all striking workers are making poor money, but the ones who are have become the focus.
It doesn’t matter whether the government sees the demands as unreasonable. In the battle for public support, it’s how the public perceives the demand that matters. The government is going to spend money regardless, so it’s about what we prefer it be spent on. And I don’t see many people saying a better deal for these employees isn’t something they want taxpayer money spent on.
But if the government wants to make the argument the union demands are unreasonable and unaffordable, it should be forced to confront the double standard it is practicing when it comes to finances. Because until it does, the “can’t afford it” argument will ring hollow.
If lack of money is the reason, let the government explain why, for example, it continually refuses to collect hundreds of millions of dollars it should be realizing from forestry companies in Crown Land royalties. Remember how lumber prices hit record highs back in the summer, double and triple what they had been? Other provinces adjusted their Crown Land royalties accordingly so their taxpayers would benefit. We didn’t. In New Brunswick’s case, only the large forestry companies benefitted. If we had used the same formula Alberta did to recognize the added value of the resource, we would have collected $200 Million for the year. Instead, we only got $70 Million, the forestry companies pocketing the difference.
And this on top of the ridiculously low royalty rates even before the lumber prices spiked. Both our former Auditor General and a review by CIBC World Markets have pointed out that New Brunswick taxpayers are losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars that would be going into government coffers if not for royalties that are far below market value.
On top of all that, eight years ago, the government of the day cut pulp mill and paper mill property taxes in half. This because the operations were struggling at the time. But then they recovered and haven’t struggled in years, in fact business is booming. But that tax cut, worth well over $100 Million dollars a year, remains in place. Why are New Brunswick taxpayers continuing to subsidize businesses that don’t need it?
Are you detecting a pattern here? In New Brunswick, JD Irving and other forestry companies benefit from many hundreds of millions of dollars they should be paying into provincial coffers every year, simply because the Higgs government chooses to allow it.
For the government to then turn around and argue they can’t afford the union demands while this is going on begs the question – why don’t you simply stop subsidizing big companies that don’t need the help? Talk about a double standard.
Spending is always about priorities. Choosing the rich over the struggling isn’t a good look for any government. Choosing JDI and other big forestry companies for financial breaks over its lowest paid employees isn’t a good look for Higgs. And in this strike situation, the subsidies to the rich rip at the government’s credibility that it is holding firm with the union because it is putting taxpayers first. I hope that at the government’s next news conference some reporter asks about that, because I’d really, really like to hear the rationale.
Duncan Matheson, a former broadcast journalist and communications consultant, writes commentaries on his blog where this article first appeared on Nov. 1, 2021 and volunteers with the Fredericton Community Kitchen.
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.