Families of New Brunswick students found themselves scrambling Friday morning, Oct. 29, when they were hit with last-minute notices informing them of the cancellation of classes as unionized workers walked off the job.
With contract negotiations coming to a halt earlier this week, many unionized workers represented by 10 CUPE locals, including school workers, hit the picket lines.
Iris Lloyd, president of Local 1253, representing custodians, bus drivers and maintenance repair workers, blamed the strike directly on New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs.
"He has left us no choice but to walk out on strike," Lloyd said. "We don't want to do this. We apologize to the parents. We're parents ourselves. This affects us as well. We don't want to be out on the streets. But Premier Higgs took a stance that he didn't want to bargain with CUPE and left us no other choice."
During an afternoon press conference, Higgs said the government offered the unionized workers a fair deal, blaming the government's decision to walk away from the bargaining table on CUPE's refusal to compromise.
Education and Early Childhood Learning Minister Dominic Cardy joined the premier at the press conference. They both expressed shock that CUPE would exercise their legal strike mandate on short notice in the heart of a pandemic.
Cardy criticized the union for taking strike action, which adds pressure to families already reeling from the pandemic.
"It's a very stressful situation, and I know it only compounds the anxieties and stress of living through the last 20-plus months of the COVID pandemic that has been inflicted on everyone," he said.
Lloyd said the unionized workers would remain off the job until Higgs agreed to work with them to find a suitable deal.
"We will not be returning until Premier Higgs is ready to come back to the table and offers a fair, decent wage to the members of 1253," Lloyd said. "And that will be hands-off our defined pension plan as well."
The one area of agreement between Lloyd and Higgs appears to be the significance the pension issue plays in the stalemate.
Higgs said the real issue is the pension, suggesting CUPE's national leaders, not New Brunswick's, drew a line in the sand that changes to what he described as an "unsustainable" pension can't be on the table.
Lloyd said the Higgs government ignored a court ruling requiring it to fund the current underfunded defined pension plan adequately. She said that instead of following the court order, Higgs wants the union negotiators to sacrifice it to finalize the deal.
While acknowledging the province wants concessions on some CUPE locals' defined pension plans, Higgs said the government agreed to provide pensions to two CUPE unions that don't currently have pension plans.
Lloyd said fair wages are also a significant component of negotiations, adding Higgs has misrepresented the facts during public attempts to undermine the union.
On several occasions, including Friday's press conference, Higgs said that other CUPE unions accepted the two per cent wage hike over five years that the government offered in current negotiations.
Lloyd said the agreements with other unions don't represent the needs of her union members.
"You got to remember the members I represent. Their wages are a lot lower than the deals he secured with those other unions," said Lloyd. "The wage increase in some unions is a lot bigger than it is for someone making $18.56 an hour.".
During his press conference, Higgs said school custodians make $20.40 per hour compared to the $11.75 per hour private-sector custodians make.
Lloyd said her union members are the lowest paid in the four Atlantic provinces.
The union countered the province's two-per-cent offer over five years, with an offer of three per cent over four years.
During the press conference, Higgs estimated the difference between the two offers represents approximately $35 million a year. While acknowledging that is a small portion of an $8 billion provincial budget, he said smaller amounts, compounded with other similar decisions, add to New Brunswick taxpayers' burden.
Once CUPE signs the new contract, Higgs noted the cost of retroactive pay owed union workers, who have been without a contract for four years.
"A contract, by the way, that will pay $3,035 to every employee of CUPE in retroactivity once the contract is signed," he said. "Quite a significant Christmas bonus in one sense, although you can't necessarily call it a bonus, it is retroactive pay."
Debate remains on who is responsible for the short notice families received about cancelling Fridays' classes. During the press conference, Cardy was asked to react to CUPE's claim it gave a heads up to education officials Thursday night.
Cardy said the department received notice from the union at 12:34 a.m. Friday, which indicated only bus drivers were heading to picket lines later that morning.
He said school officials had contingency plans to handle the lack of school buses, but it couldn't make plans for the loss of those who keep the schools clean and safe for students.
Cardy said teachers attended school on Friday to prepare for online learning starting on Monday, Nov. 1.
He said school officials learned a lot about online learning during the pandemic, but it's not the ideal option because children learn better in school.
"It's not going to be the kids of CUPE leadership, who earn good salaries, who suffer the most," Cardy said. "It will be the kids who are living in vulnerable circumstances, kids living in poverty, kids who don't have support at home, kids who rely on their EA (education assistant) to help them get through the day."
While she understands the frustration of parents and others unfairly hurt by the impasse, Lloyd said workers on the picket lines report strong support from the public.
That seemed evident at a picket line on Connell Street, near the Carleton Mall, on Friday morning. As the CUPE members lined the sidewalk, they received honks of encouragement from many passing motorists.
Lloyd said the workers also enjoyed strong business support, noting many dropped by the picket lines to provide support and donations.
She said it's unclear how long the strike will last, saying it remains in the premier's hands.
"He could really stop this strike if he were willing to come back to the table and bargain for a fair collective agreement," she said.
Higgs said the government could end the strike for some union workers, but it won't necessarily mean returning to the negotiating table.
While it's not an option he wants to use, Higgs said his government might introduce some form of back-to-work legislation.
With some striking CUPE members working in health care, including those playing central roles in the province's COVID efforts, Higgs said the government would introduce emergency back-to-work legislation should the work stoppage threaten New Brunswickers' health and safety.
As for other unions, he said, his government will make decisions on a case-to-case basis.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun