N.B. premier forces striking health-care workers back to work at midnight

·7 min read
Canadian Union of Public Employees president Steve Drost handed the microphone to Premier Blaine Higgs at a union news conference Friday in Fredericton. Higgs defended the pension changes in the province's offer the night before, and said health-care workers need to go back to work. (CBC - image credit)
Canadian Union of Public Employees president Steve Drost handed the microphone to Premier Blaine Higgs at a union news conference Friday in Fredericton. Higgs defended the pension changes in the province's offer the night before, and said health-care workers need to go back to work. (CBC - image credit)

The New Brunswick government is using the province's COVID-19 state of emergency to force striking health-care workers back to work at midnight Friday.

Public Safety Minister Ted Flemming told an afternoon news conference that cabinet was using the Emergency Measures Act to issue the order.

"This is about patients who are in hospital who need care," he said. "It is about New Brunswickers who may find themselves in hospital needing care, needing testing, needing intervention."

The order, which is separate from the existing COVID-19 mandatory order, will apply only to striking workers in the health-care field. School staff, jail guards, court stenographers and others on strike are not affected and can continue to walk picket lines.

The order takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday night. Flemming said workers must then report for their next shift "in the usual manner."

He would not answer questions about how workers who don't comply would be penalized.

CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost, in an interview with CBC News, said he won't instruct members on what to do in response to the order.

"Locals have autonomy underneath the constitution of CUPE, and it'll be the leadership and the members that will make that decision, and I don't order anybody to do anything," he said.

Drost also issued a statement saying the government could have kept bargaining and didn't have to resort to an emergency order.

"The premier is using the pandemic situation to force workers back to work instead of respecting the negotiation process."

Health authority CEOs asked for order

The CEOs of the province's two health authorities said they asked for the move.

"The situation is no longer tenable," said Vitalité Health CEO Dr. France Desrosiers.

Horizon Health CEO Dr. John Dornan said the system was "broken," with 240 surgeries and 10,000 tests and procedures cancelled so far during the week-long strike by the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"We pulled the pin yesterday," he said. "We said we need help."

Flemming called the order an "unfortunate but necessary intervention."

Joe McDonald/CBC
Joe McDonald/CBC

He also brushed off questions about whether the order was constitutional in light of a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling upholding the right to strike and narrowing the power of governments to order people back to work.

"This has nothing to do with labour relations," Flemming said.

Premier Blaine Higgs said, "Our hospitals can't wait any longer."

Opposition Liberal leader Roger Melanson and Green Party leader David Coon immediately announced on Twitter that they are quitting the all-party COVID committee that since March 2020 has included Higgs, key ministers and leaders of all the other parties in the legislature.

"The premier is the only one responsible for this crisis," Melanson said in a tweet.

"The use of the Emergency Measures Act powers to order public sector workers back to work circumvents the democratic process of the Legislature," Coon said. "This is unacceptable."

CUPE Local 1252, the New Brunswick Council of Hospital Unions, has about 9,000 members, 70 per cent of whom are deemed essential and have been at work during the strike.

That does not include about 300 to 400 people who've been working at COVID-19 vaccination clinics. The province did not seek to declare those workers essential in the months leading up to the strike.

The order will also apply to some CUPE members in other locals who work in hospitals, such as laundry workers.

The order was the culmination of an increasingly contentious day.

Higgs speaks at CUPE news conference

Higgs made an appearance at an earlier Friday news conference by the Canadian Union of Public Employees as efforts to end the week-long strike by public-sector workers appeared to go off the rails.

CUPE officials were laying out a counter-proposal they made to the government overnight when the premier appeared at the news conference outside the legislature in Fredericton.

"That's not how bargaining works," CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost told reporters later, though he had challenged Higgs to "come out right now and … settle this," just before the premier's arrival.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Higgs listened to Drost outline Thursday's discussions for several minutes before the union offered him its microphone to address the crowd.

The premier then laid out his position, defending pension changes in the province's offer, and getting into back-and-forth debates with some union leaders and striking workers in the crowd.

"No one loses anything in their current plans," he said, trying to explain details of the province's proposal on pensions for two CUPE locals not part of the existing shared-risk plan.

He said health-care workers need to come back to work, which was met with jeers from the crowd.

Eventually, Higgs asked for a more orderly question-and-answer format. At that point, CUPE asked for its microphone back and the premier left.

The dramatic and unconventional confrontation took place just an hour after Higgs told the legislature that CUPE had promised to recommend a government offer to its members after a marathon meeting Thursday.

The first of more than 20,000 CUPE members began walking off the job last Friday morning after contract negotiations with the province collapsed for the second time. The striking workers include jail guards, school custodians, educational assistants, court stenographers, and clerical and cleaning staff working for regional health authorities.

Higgs said in question period Friday morning that "we had a path forward when we left last night" that CUPE leaders promised to recommend to members, so he was disappointed to see health-care workers still picketing.

"We had an agreement last night," he said, but he noted there was a condition attached to it about health-care workers returning to their jobs quickly.

Higgs said Attorney-General Flemming and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard "are reviewing our options at this stage," a reference to the possibility of back-to-work legislation or the use of the province's emergency order to end the strike.

"We are in a pandemic," the premier said. "We will address the issues in our hospitals. … We will be moving forward to get health-care workers back to work."

The government has scheduled a news conference for 2:45 p.m.

'Tricks are being played,' CUPE president says

Drost told the outdoor news conference that he sent the government a counter-proposal to Thursday night's offer at 4:03 a.m. He said if the province had accepted it, he had been prepared to send union members back to work Friday morning, but no response came.

"We have gone above and beyond every step of this way to protect the public and protect you, but once again, tricks are being played," Drost said.

The first of several CUPE locals representing 20,000 workers walked off the job the morning of Oct. 29.

Drost arrived for the meeting with Higgs on Thursday at 1 p.m. and left at 8:45 p.m.

The dispute has focused on CUPE's push for wage increases, but Higgs is insisting that the union also agree to shift two of the union locals into the province's shared-risk pension plan.

That dispute over pensions was the focus of Higg's impromptu debates with CUPE members during his surprise appearance at the news conference.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Higgs said during question period that the province had received a response from CUPE but would not say what it was.

But he said the union had raised "something additional" that wasn't part of Thursday's discussions.

"We are now focused on the emergency order and the health-care system in our province."

Drost called Higgs's appearance at the news conference "so bizarre" and would not say whether he thought health-care locals would comply if they were legally ordered back to work.

"This has been so unusual, this round of bargaining. We've never seen anything like this, ever."

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