New Brunswick's premier says tentative deal with CUPE fair for workers and taxpayers

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FREDERICTON — A tentative deal reached with roughly 20,000 striking public sector workers is a fair one for employees and for taxpayers, Premier Blaine Higgs said Sunday.

Higgs did not release any details of the agreement on Sunday, pending the results of a ratification vote by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees expected later this week. The agreement was reached Saturday after two days of negotiations.

The 16-day, provincewide walkout included workers in the education, health, transportation and infrastructure sectors, along with employees at community colleges.

"Both sides were able to work creatively and patiently with the best interests of New Brunswickers in mind and balance competing needs to reach a reasonable agreement," Higgs said of the talks between the government and union.

He said all services affected by the strike would be up-and-running "as soon as possible," including the province's public schools which will open on Monday.

Schools had moved to online learning as bus drivers, custodians and educational assistants were among the employees who walked off the job.

"I know the last couple of weeks have been challenging for families and that many teachers, parents and students are more than ready to get back to the classroom," said Higgs.

The premier added that community college students would be able to return for on-campus training by Tuesday.

Higgs also said a government back-to-work order issued Nov. 5 for striking health-care employees had been rescinded, making a scheduled Monday union court appearance seeking to have the emergency order suspended unnecessary.

He said he was optimistic the agreement would be accepted by the union, but cautioned the five-year contract would expire over the coming months for many bargaining units because of the length of time it took to reach a deal for contracts that had previously run their course.

Higgs said negotiations would have to shift from "financial settlements only" to finding innovative solutions to some of the challenges faced in areas such as health care.

"We have the right agreement for right now, but going forward it needs to be focused on innovation and changes in our workplace and in our work habits," he said.

Meanwhile, the union said Sunday that all picket lines had come down and all workers were in the process of returning to their jobs.

CUPE spokesman Simon Ouellette called the agreement a "victory" for the union. He said the wage agreement, meant to address one of CUPE's key bargaining demands, would likely be viewed as satisfactory by some and as not enough by others.

"We need to remember that a year ago, the premier was saying the whole public sector were getting zeros and front line workers were getting a (wage) freeze," he said. "We have something that's much better. I'm feeling good about this one."

A statement released Saturday by the union said that a proposed wage package would be voted on by seven CUPE locals, while a proposed memorandum of agreement had been reached regarding pension plans for two others.

The agreement would also see the wage proposal given to three other locals representing employees with community colleges and WorkSafeNB.

A tentative deal was also being finalized for N.B. Liquor workers who would be in a legal strike position as of Tuesday.

"We are hoping to have the vote conducted in each local in a relatively tight time frame," said Ouellette. "Ideally they would even begin tomorrow (Monday)."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2021.

- By Keith Doucette in Halifax

The Canadian Press

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