All CUPE locals in wage talks with province vote overwhelmingly to strike

·5 min read
Support for strike action ranged from 83 to 98 per cent across the 10 locals negotiating with the province. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC - image credit)
Support for strike action ranged from 83 to 98 per cent across the 10 locals negotiating with the province. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC - image credit)

All 10 CUPE locals who were in wage talks with the province have voted in favour of a strike.

Results for the final two votes were announced by CUPE officials in a news briefing on Wednesday morning.

Local 5026, which represents francophone community college workers, and Local 1190, general labour and trades, both voted 96 per cent in favour of strike action.

The ten locals represent approximately 22,000 workers around the province.

Nearly every one of the locals voted overwhelmingly for a strike. Percentages ranged from 83 to 98 across the 10 groups.

Steve Drost, the president of CUPE New Brunswick, said the average was 94 per cent. He said the results send a clear message to government and Premier Blaine Higgs.

Jacques Poitras/CBC News
Jacques Poitras/CBC News

"So, Mr. Higgs, you've got 10 locals that have taken very, very strong strike mandates. Let's not go down that road. Don't force us down that road, but our members have given us a very, very clear, strong message."

Talks between the province and CUPE members broke down on Sept. 3 when an agreement over wages couldn't be reached and the province stopped negotiating.

Drost said the union wrote to the premier last Friday, asking the province to come back to the bargaining table. So far, he said, they haven't received a response.

The union is asking for annual wage increases of five per cent over the next four years.

Last December, Higgs asked public-sector unions to agree to four-year contracts with no wage increase in the first year and increases of one per cent in each of the three remaining years.

Higgs said wage restraint was necessary because COVID-19 had pushed the province into a precarious financial position.

The province's most recent offer was for annual increases of 1.25 per cent over four years, then two per cent in the fifth and sixth years.

But the government wanted CUPE to agree to concessions, including converting members' pensions to the shared-risk model used elsewhere in the civil service and transferring about 100 union members to management positions.

CUPE NB
CUPE NB

There have also been complaints of bad faith bargaining filed by both sides with the province's labour board.

"Let's get back to the bargaining table and let's settle this and bring some labour peace to this province," said Drost.

Here's a breakdown for each local that voted in favour of strike action:

  • Local 1418 – Rehabilitation, therapy and RCPO - 92 per cent

  • Local 1251 – Institutional services and care - 98 per cent

  • Local 1253 – School district unions - 97 per cent

  • Local 2745 – Educational support staff - 91 per cent

  • Local 1840 - Court stenographers - 96 per cent

  • Local 1866 - WorkSafe NB - 83 per cent

  • Local 5017 - Community colleges - 93 per cent

  • Local 1252 - Hospital workers - 94 per cent

  • Local 5026 - Collèges communautaires du NB - 96 per cent

  • Local 1190 - General Labour and Trades 96 per cent

Eight of those 10 locals are in a strike position right now and by next Tuesday, all 10 "will be in a legal position to take job action," said Drost.

One local started last week and another is planning to start. But Drost declined to give any details about what that means or how it might impact the public.

He said union members "will be doing exactly what is required in the collective agreements," but said members are committed to being "socially responsible" and will not do anything to endanger the public.

"Again, we're reviewing this extremely closely. We don't want to put our members at risk, we certainly don't want to put the public at risk, and we are looking at everyone's safety and well-being."

Some deemed essential

Each local has a number of "essential" positions that cannot walk off the job. The numbers vary depending on the classification within the local.

In the case of hospital workers, for example, there are more than 140 classifications in Local 1252, explained CUPE spokesperson Simon Ouellette.

He said at least 50 per cent of the positions are deemed essential, but the percentages vary depending on worker classifications. Ouellette said it's about 75 per cent for those directly involved in patient care and significantly lower in others, like administrative/clerical positions.

The president of Local 1252, the New Brunswick Council of Hospital Unions, said the numbers are adequate to ensure public safety.

CBC
CBC

"The one thing that we really view when we do essential service designations is public safety," said Norma Robinson.

"So yes, we feel that they are more than adequate and they were agreed to by the union and the employer, so both parties agree they're adequate."

The question, Robinson said, is how service will be impacted in six weeks when the government is set to suspend without pay all workers who are not fully vaccinated.

Drost said workers would prefer to get back to the bargaining table instead of taking job action. He said some employees have been without a contract for five years.

He also said CUPE expects a level playing field when talks resume. He said the government was offering concessions to other groups that were not being offered to his members.

"How can you bargain with a bunch of other unions in this province and offer them one thing, but come to the table and offer our group something else?" asked Drost.

But he declined to give specifics about what concessions he was talking about and to whom they were offered.

Higgs said he was aware of the results of the CUPE votes.

"It is unfortunate they feel they must go on strike, but we remain confident that a deal can be achieved at the bargaining table. We are willing to return to the table as soon as CUPE is prepared to come forward with revised wage proposals," Higgs said in an emailed statement.

"With respect to working to rule, it is very unfortunate that CUPE is sanctioning this action while the province is immersed in the fourth wave of the COVID pandemic."

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