Fredericton outside workers locked out amid wage dispute

·3 min read

The City of Fredericton locked out its outside workers Friday afternoon following failed talks and mediation between city administrators and the union.

The workers served the city with a 24-hour strike notice at 4 p.m. Thursday, but a council vote Monday directed the city to lock out the workers in the event of a strike.

The outside workers include snowplow operators, mechanics and staff who maintain the city's drinking water.

Kevin Smallwood, president of CUPE Local 508, said the city hasn't moved far enough to accommodate his members' demands.

"We have moved on our initial ask quite a bit, but they have not come up to meet what we're looking for," Smallwood said.

The union is asking for a five per cent wage increase and a raise based on the consumer price index for each year of the five-year agreement, with a floor of 1.75 per cent.

On Thursday, the city offered the workers a five per cent wage increase, a consumer price index-level raise and benefits, but it did not offer a floor rate of 1.75 per cent.

The workers rejected the offer.

"We wanted a floor of 1.75 per cent in case the CPI was really low just for protection because it's such an unknown," Smallwod said.

Chris MacPherson, chief administrative officer for Fredericton, said the city's offer was fair.

"I know it's still not where they want to be, but we thought it was a very generous offer," MacPherson said.

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

Smallwood said 85 per cent of the 115 workers present at the union vote Monday were in favour of strike action. The union represents 125 workers, who have been without a contract since December 2018. Talks have been ongoing since last October, but negotiations between the union and city staff halted Thursday.

Fredericton's outside workers rank sixth out of eight municipalities in the province in terms of pay grade.

"We feel [a strike is] the only way we're going to get a fair number for us," Smallwood said, adding that he's proud to serve the city.

"All the services that Local 508 provide the citizens of the City of Fredericton keep the city moving."

Lockout or strike

Local 508 workers were off the job Friday, although they are still being paid.

The city said early this week the lockout will prevent the union from taking a rotating strike action, which would make providing services more difficult.

Locking out the workers to head off the strike doesn't give an employer a tangible upper hand in negotiations, according to Fredericton-based lawyer Joël Michaud, who specializes in labour and employment law.

When it comes to financial assistance for workers, unions don't discern between strikes and lockouts, while employers aren't bound by law to pay locked-out employees, he said.

A lockout does give the employer control over when the action takes place, Michaud said, but the act is often a strategic move, a symbolic show of strength.

"The dispute is a war, so you expect both sides really to strategize in such a way as to make their point to fight their battle in the most effective way possible," said Michaud, who has represented CUPE in other matters.

City managers to take on snow clearing

For the duration of the lockout, city managers will drive plows, salt trucks and fulfil other gaps in services.

"We do appreciate people's patience … the service is not going to be what we're used to," said MacPherson, the city's CAO.

Fewer than 10 of the 30 city managers are qualified to drive snowplows.

"We do need people to slow down, be patient with us, we'll get to all these streets eventually. But it's going to take longer."

If repairs are needed to Fredericton's water system, the city said it will have to hire local contractors.