Glimmer of hope in contract talks as 22,000 N.B. public workers near strike vote

·2 min read

FREDERICTON — There are some promising signs a deal could be reached between the provincial government and 22,000 public sector workers, who could take a strike vote as early as Sept. 7, CUPE New Brunswick president Steve Drost said Friday.

Drost said Premier Blaine Higgs spoke to the bargaining teams Thursday and they have agreed to continue negotiations next week.

Jennifer Vienneau, a spokesperson for the Finance Department, said in an email Friday the premier also considered the meeting positive.

"The Government of New Brunswick respects the collective bargaining process and remains hopeful that the parties can reach a negotiated agreement that recognizes our ongoing challenges," she wrote.

But despite the positive signs, Drost said workers are ready for a strike if a deal can't be reached.

"I think everyone knows the pressure is on," he told reporters in Fredericton. "These groups have been so long without a contract and they said it's time we either get a contract or take the necessary action to force the hand."

Public workers — many of whom have been without new contracts for as long as five years — went above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic and deserve fair and reasonable wage increases, Drost said. He said his members do a wide variety of jobs in major sectors, including education, health care and social development, and he said are all considered front-line workers.

Drost wouldn't reveal the wage increases being sought by the union, except to say they are above the increase in the cost of living.

Ten union locals will be able to take strike votes starting Sept. 7, and Drost said a strike would "shut the province down."

"You can't clean schools, you can't clean hospitals, you're not doing assessments for people who need nursing homes and you're not repairing buildings — it will have a devastating impact on this province," he said. "That's the last thing these workers want to do."

National CUPE president Mark Hancock said the union is ready to support the New Brunswick workers in the event of a strike.

"We don't want to go down that road, but if we do, we have a very strong strike fund," Hancock told reporters Friday. "We'll be ready to take those steps if we have to, but really we want to get a deal that works for our members and for the province."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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