Editor’s note: The NB Media Co-op has collaborated with the Canadian Union of Public Employees to publish a forthcoming book commemorating the 2021 CUPE strike in New Brunswick, and the events leading up to it. A key date was Nov. 2, 2021, when the union organized a massive demonstration in Fredericton. That event is outlined in the following text, the eighth chapter of the book. Last year’s events are especially significant today, as education workers in Ontario face the imposition of a contract under Premier Doug Ford — and as the Ontario government appears poised to use the notwithstanding clause to halt a strike by CUPE workers.
On Tuesday, November 2, the fifth day of the strike, CUPE members disrupted the first sitting of the Legislative Assembly since June with one of the largest rallies ever held in the provincial capital.
The previous day the government had abruptly cancelled the official start of a new legislative session to give it “more flexibility” to take the exceptional step of introducing back-to-work legislation. Instead of the scheduled Speech from the Throne at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, members of the Legislative Assembly heard bellowing horns and cheering crowds. Even the microphones used by MLAs inside the legislative chamber picked up the outside noise.
In Question Period, members of the opposition parties hammered the government for failing to settle the strike at the bargaining table. “I cannot imagine for one second that the Premier likes to hear what is going on outside,” said Liberal leader Roger Melanson. “When are you going to get back to the negotiating table so that we can resolve this labour dispute?”
Green Party leader David Coon demanded to know why Higgs had walked away from the table when an agreement was within reach only a few days earlier. “Why is the Premier holding 22,000 public servants and all New Brunswickers hostage to his demands for concessions on pension plans when the negotiations are supposed to be about fair wages for the public sector workers of this province?”
Coon pointed out that most CUPE workers on strike were women: “These women do not get paid nearly enough or get provided with sufficient hours of work to be able to support themselves by themselves. This is nothing more than systemic discrimination based on gender.”
For his part, Higgs said that he was prepared to reach a fair deal but was also “being prudent with taxpayer dollars.” The biggest obstacle to a settlement, he recognized, was his demand for changes in pensions, but he blamed the resistance on outside influences. “It is because CUPE National is driving the bus. CUPE National is driving this negotiation, and that is why we do not have a deal,” he said. “It is as simple as that.”
A loud message for fair wages
Outside the legislature, the crowd was exhilarated. The previous day, CUPE NB had issued an appeal for New Brunswickers to come to Fredericton and “send a loud message to government that the public supports fair wages for frontline workers.”
CUPE NB had organized the event within the previous 72 hours, timed to coincide with the planned formal opening of the Legislative Assembly. As Drost and other CUPE NB leaders drove from their “War Room” at the Radisson Hotel in Hanwell, the union president was hoping that perhaps 2,000 people would be in attendance.
The horns and cheers could be heard up along the Wolastoq River and blocks away across town. “When we got to the Exhibition Grounds, there was pretty well already a thousand there,” Drost recalled. “And the numbers, they just kept growing and growing.”
Crowds assembled there on Smythe Street at noon, and also in front of the Lady Beaverbrook Rink on University Avenue. From these two locations, they marched through the streets to join other demonstrators in front of the legislature. There, they covered the lawn and spilled out into the surrounding streets under the blue sky of a beautiful fall afternoon. Reliable estimates placed the crowd at 5,000 or more, and the union had crowd marshals on hand to direct the flow of people and ensure a peaceful rally.
Staff Sergeant Michael MacLean of the Fredericton police later commended CUPE NB for bringing together so many people without incident. “On behalf of the Fredericton Police Force, I wanted to pass along my appreciation for how helpful you and your designated marshals were today,” he said in an email. He called the event “a job well managed.”
In addition to the familiar waving fists and “Bargaining Forward” signs from earlier demonstrations, other messages read: “I deserve fairness,” “I’m a proud frontline Worker,” “Workers deserve FAIR WAGES.” A poster of a shattered provincial map read: “IF HEALTHCARE WORKERS ARE OUTSIDE, THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG ON THE INSIDE.” Another said: “CUPE NB SCFP 1253 CLEANS THE WAY FOR SAFE EDUCATION.”
Some hand-lettered signs read: “We all deserve a pay raise”; “We serve and care for NB people. Do you?”; “Higgs! Come play nice in the sandbox!”; and “This is what solidarity looks like.”
The New Brunswick Federation of Labour displayed its banner prominently, as did other public sector unions, including the New Brunswick Nurses Union, the New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees, the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation, and the faculty unions at St. Thomas University and the University of New Brunswick.
‘We’re there for you’
Busloads of union members arrived in the provincial capital from across New Brunswick. A transport schedule included pick-up locations at Campbellton, Dalhousie, Miramichi, Moncton, Sussex, Hampton, Saint John, Perth, Woodstock, St. Stephen, Edmundston, Bathurst, Pokemouche, Tracadie, Saint Leonard, Grand Falls–Grand-Sault and Bouctouche.
In making plans, organizers found a shortage of available coach buses because of the pandemic: regular bus tours had been cancelled, so companies had not licensed their vehicles. The shortage prompted a gesture of solidarity from Indigenous allies, with Eel River Bar First Nation loaning school buses to the union. The feeling was: “You guys need buses? We’re there for you,” Drost recalled.
New Brunswickers were well aware that relations between the Higgs government and Indigenous communities had reached a new low point in October after a memo from Attorney General and Minister of Justice Ted Flemming had been leaked to the media.
In it, Flemming banned civil servants from acknowledging unceded or unsurrendered First Nations land. CUPE NB responded with a statement calling the memo “an affront to reconciliation efforts.” Drost warned that any attempt to discipline members for making territorial acknowledgements would be met with grievances, and he called the memo an infringement of members’ right to free expression.
‘We’ve got this’
Among the workers travelling to Fredericton for the rally was Lorraine Urquhart, a longtime court stenographer from Saint John and a member of the bargaining team for CUPE 1840. She recalled a feeling of pride and solidarity at the demonstration, and an encouraging response from the general public. “It was very positive energy,” she said.
The rally was significant even for members unable to attend in-person, as pickets continued across the province. “We could hear it from Bathurst,” joked CUPE 1190 plow operator Michel Losier, coordinator of the strike headquarters in that northern New Brunswick city, 250 kilometres away, where members watched the events by video.
The union had planned to livestream the rally online, but the feed went down as the crowd poured in. “So many people were on their phones that there was just no more bandwidth,” recalled Simon Ouellette.
Christine Goguen, a CUPE 5026 executive member from the Dieppe campus of the Collège communautaire du N.-B., recalled local residents showing support by holding placards or banging pots and pans, a form of protest practised internationally, and known in Spanish as cacerolazo.
One childcare centre brought out a group of young children, who also held signs and joined in the noisemaking. “That one was very touching,” Goguen said. “I’ve been in a few rallies and protests, and I had never seen such a strong community support like this. It really charged my batteries for the weeks ahead,” said Goguen.
Crowd marshals cleared a path for CUPE NB leaders as they arrived on the grounds of the legislature. “The crowd spread and opened a path for us to reach the steps of the legislature,” said Daniel Légère, president of the NB Federation of Labour. “There’s a feeling I have never had before with that many people there.”
Harding had initially worried about anti-maskers hijacking the demonstration, but only a handful showed up. She said the sheer size and energy of the demonstration represented a “turning point” in the strike. That’s when she knew: “We’ve got this.”
‘You know your worth’
Standing on the steps of the legislature holding a microphone, Steve Drost kicked off the rally with the kind of land acknowledgement the Attorney General had recently banned among civil servants. As the crowd cheered, he declared: “I give thanks and I recognize that we are on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Mi’kmaq, the Maliseet and the Passamaquoddy.”
“I just want to tell you how proud I am to be a member of CUPE NB today,” he continued. “Your leaders have heard you loud and clear. For too many years you have been attacked. For too many years they have not paid you your worth. And you have given us a very strong message. You know your value. You know your worth. And we’re here to stand with you.”
The presidents of the ten locals on the centralized bargaining team also addressed the crowd.
“I am so honoured to represent you at the centralized bargaining team,” said Shawna Morton, president of CUPE 1418. “Together we’re going to win this and we’re going to win it big.”
“I am sick and tired of being beaten down by this government,” said Chris Curran, president of CUPE 1251. “We are here to support you and get you the raises that you deserve.”
Pointing to the long empty table placed at the foot of the steps, Harding called for the government to return to bargaining. “We are going to use our outside voices because we are not on the inside,” she said. “Use your outside voices now to tell them to get back to the table. It’s pretty bad we have to bring a bargaining table here to come and bargain with this government.”
Drost raised linked fists with New Brunswick Federation of Labour President Danny Légère and led the crowd in a solidarity chant. “You are standing up for every worker in this province,” Drost told the crowd. “You are standing up for democracy. Because, Mr. Higgs, this is what democracy looks like.”
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op. She is the former president of the Professional Institute of Public Service of Canada’s national bargaining group representing researchers at the National Research Council of Canada. David Gordon Koch is a journalist and the NB Media Co-op’s part-time administrator. He previously worked as a reporter for the Times & Transcript, where he was a member of CWA Canada Local 30636, the Moncton Typographical Union.