The latest attack on union rights in New Brunswick is raising red flags for union leaders and opposition MLAs.
Bill 23, a set of amendments to the Public Service Labour Relations Act, was introduced on Nov. 24 by Postsecondary, Training and Labour Minister Trevor Holder. It is expected to come up for debate as early as next week.
The most dramatic change will define who can replace an absent worker in a position designated as essential during a strike. The list of possible replacement workers includes employees not included in a bargaining unit, casual employees, private contractors, or striking employees themselves.
In response to the government’s unexpected proposal, CUPE has asserted that no essential worker refused to work during the province-wide 16-day strike in 2021.
The union also said it’s “deplorable” that the government would make it legal to use scabs in the public service, where the practice has been prohibited for more than 50 years.
“Trevor Holder’s scab-friendly law is a step backwards for workers. Instead of properly staffing our services, hospitals and schools, this government is wasting precious time attacking workers’ rights,” the union stated.
In fact, a mechanism already exists to resolve such a situation: the government could file a complaint with the Labour and Employment Board to compel the union to ensure that its members fill the essential positions.
Indeed, given the significant shortage of public sector workers in many essential positions, it is unclear where the government believes it would find a supply of replacement workers to fill these jobs. And if these people exist, why the government would not just hire them now to address the continual staffing crisis.
Among the many other proposed changes is a new clause that would give the government the power to ban picketing during a strike or limit the numbers of pickets and the places they can demonstrate.
There is an additional grab-bag of minor changes that tilt the labour relations process in favour of the employer, all arrived at without consultation with the participants. Strike notices, for instance, will require three times as much time as a lockout notices. And instead of providing incentives for speedy settlements, or even penalties for failing to negotiate in a timely manner, the amendments set a deadline for strike votes to expire.
Pushback in the legislature
The Bill came under heavy criticism by opposition parties. “Workers have fought hard for the right to bargain, and this bill goes against the spirit of that bargaining process,” stated Keith Chiasson, official opposition critic for Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour. However, in an interview with Radio-Canada, Chiasson would not commit to repealing the legislation if his party returns to power in the next election.
During question period, Green MLA Kevin Arseneau said that the government is demonstrating its disdain for organized labour. Bill 23 “is a contemptuous act towards workers,” he said, highlighting the lack of proof that any essential worker refused to show up for work during the CUPE strike last year.
The day after Bill 23 was introduced, Arseneau introduced Bill 26 that proposes banning the use of replacement workers during a strike or lockout. The new bill, which is similar to laws in Quebec and British Columbia, is identical to the legislation Arseneau introduced in 2020 after public sector employers locked out CUPE workers and replaced them with scabs in Fredericton and Allardville.
The MLA said he introduced both bills to show solidarity with New Brunswick workers. “Banning scab workers would be a concrete way of showing support to the province’s workers,” said Arseneau. “The use of replacement workers decreases the bargaining power for unionized workers and is contrary to the principle of good-faith negotiations.”
In an interview, Arseneau said the Higgs government “is following a kind of business model where solidarity between workers and organized unions is seen as negative,” and that the government has a disdain for any group that organizes to defend their rights, including First Nations and francophones.
He added that ironically, the government’s anti-labour legislation is providing an opportunity to rally against “the bad guys” and to develop solidarity. He noted that the recent attempt by Ontario’s Doug Ford government to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause against striking CUPE workers led unions to band together and threaten job action. The organized response by the labour movement forced the Ontario government to back down.
However, Arseneau added that what is “always very, very frightening is that there could be as much solidarity as we wish” but that with the government in a majority position it expects backbenchers to fall in line and pass the legislation anyway.
Pushback by organized labour
Immediately after Minister Holder introduced Bill 23, unions began to speak out against it. Statements denouncing the Bill were issued by public sector unions including the New Brunswick Union (NBU), the New Brunswick Nurses Union (NBNU), and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC).
UNIFOR also issued a statement that as Canada’s largest union in the private sector, it “stands in firm solidarity with New Brunswick public sector workers and their unions amid the Higgs government’s anti-worker, anti-labour legislation.”
This week the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL) organized a meeting that brought together public sector unions to discuss their response to Bill 23. NBFL president Daniel Legere said the Bill proposes “several fundamental changes to labour relations in the province, unfairly skewing labour dynamics in favour of the employer.”
Both Legere and New Brunswick Nurses Union president Paula Doucet deplored the lack of engagement with the unions before the proposed changes were introduced in the Legislative Assembly.
In an interview, Doucet said that unions are pushing back to protect the gains they have managed to get over the years. “Both the government and unions follow the Public Service Labor Relations Act, it’s not one sided. So, to have this government arbitrarily make these legislative changes and try and push it through the House really tips the favour towards the government, with no consultation.”
She called for respectful working relationships. “If you’re going to continuously undermine us without even having conversations, that’s the bigger piece for me that’s troublesome, to undermine workers in this province, when really it’s workers in this province that are keeping us propped up and actually making it a positive place to be.”
A year ago, Doucet said there were upwards of 1,300 vacancies for registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners, calling it “a huge hole in our system.” At the end of 2022, the situation hasn’t changed much, with new nurses coming into the system but many continuing to leave.
“We’ve got to make it attractive for nurses wanting to come back to New Brunswick, by addressing wages, work-life balance, workload and the respect that nurses should be getting from their employers,” she said.
Doucet said that “what Bill 23 has shown is the strength within the labour movement here in this province.” Doucet believes that the solidarity across private and public sector unions “is going to be needed and is there to actually push back against governments that are anti-labour and anti-union. We’re all working together to fight back because it is about an attack on all workers.”
Union leaders are working together with housing rights advocates to organize a show of support on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at the Legislative Assembly. In addition to demonstrating opposition to the government’s Bill 23, organizers are asking people to demonstrate their opposition to the government’s Bill 25, affecting tenants.
That date is the earliest that the government can bring either bill for debate. Organizers are advising participants to arrive before the debate starts at 1pm to be seated in the visitors’ gallery, that ID is required, and no signs are allowed.
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op.