FREDERICTON — New Brunswick's government issued an emergency order forcing striking workers in the health-care sector to return to work starting midnight Friday, threatening fines up to $20,400 per day for employees who refuse to comply.
The order was necessary because there was a risk of medical treatment not being provided and loss of life if the strike continued, Attorney General Hugh Flemming told reporters in Fredericton. He called the government's move unfortunate but necessary, saying the labour disruption has led to a crisis in the province's hospitals.
"This action has nothing to do with labour relations," Flemming said. "This is about health care. It is about the safety of New Brunswickers. This is about patients who are in hospital and need care."
Dr. John Dornan, interim CEO of the Horizon Health Network, said 240 surgeries had been cancelled in his hospitals and more than 10,000 tests and procedures had not been completed since the strike started last week.
"We are broken," he told reporters at the news conference. "How do we get ahead of COVID if we don't know who is infected?"
Flemming said the back-to-work order only applies to workers in the health sector, not other CUPE members who have been off the job since last Friday.
The strike by 22,000 public servants involves school bus drivers, educational support staff and workers in health, transportation, corrections and the community college system.
Premier Blaine Higgs told the news conference the situation had gone on for too long. "Immediate action must be taken to ensure we can keep New Brunswickers safe," he said.
Higgs's government issued a news release later on Friday, stating that anyone who fails to report to work risks being fined between $480 and $20,400 per day. CUPE is threatened with a minimum fine of $100,000 for each day that a worker doesn't comply with the order.
The union issued a statement in response to the order, calling the government's decision "heavy handed."
"The Premier is using the pandemic situation to force workers back to work instead of respecting the negotiation process," it wrote.
Before the back-to-work order had been issued, CUPE union president Steve Drost told reporters Friday it was too soon to say if his members would respect it.
"I can tell you there's a lot of very angry people," Drost said. "They are so fed up. It's very volatile. It's a time bomb and there's no need of it. (Higgs is) putting the New Brunswick population at risk."
The union released the details of the government's proposal and the union's counter-proposal. The government offered a wage increase of two per cent per year for five years as well as a 25-cent-per-hour increase each year. It also proposed pension changes for two locals.
The government's proposed changes would switch workers in one local to a shared-risk model for their pension, which offers benefits to members to the extent that funds remain available and doesn't guarantee that benefits will never be reduced. The government is also offering to extend pensions to another group that currently doesn't have one.
The union said it countered with a pay raise of two per cent per year over five years, as well as an extra 25-cent-per-hour raise for the first three years, followed by a 50-cent increase per hour in the final two years. But key to the counter-proposal was the removal of the pension changes.
"We're here to negotiate wages," Drost told reporters.
Higgs told the news conference that the government had offered to refer the pension issue to a pair of actuaries for assessment.
Earlier in the day, Higgs took the microphone at a CUPE news conference to appeal to members for an end to the strike, but Drost said the union was still waiting for the government to respond to the latest union counter-offer. Drost said his union was willing to call its members back to work rather than wait for a ratification vote.
"Each and every one of you could have been back to work this morning," Drost said to a few hundred striking members gathered on the front lawn of the legislature. "You could have been in there getting the schools ready for Monday. You could have been in there getting the laundry straightened around in the hospitals."
Then Drost addressed Higgs directly: "You want a deal? You come out right now and let's settle this."
Higgs arrived at the news conference a few minutes later, walking through the crowd of striking workers and asking to address them.
"We need to have a solution here," Higgs told the crowd.
Green Leader David Coon and interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson both condemned the government's back-to-work order and both quit the government's all-party COVID-19 cabinet committee in protest.
"This situation is pure chaos," Melanson wrote in a statement. "The Premier must put aside his ego, stop obsessing over the pensions and come to an agreement of fair and competitive wages.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press