Public sector workers in N.B. give union strike mandate, could walk off job next week

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FREDERICTON — Thousands of public sector workers in New Brunswick have voted strongly in favour of a strike mandate and some could walk off the job as early as next week, CUPE New Brunswick president Steve Drost said Wednesday.

Members in all 10 locals voted 94 per cent on average to give the union a strike mandate, Drost told reporters, adding that the union would prefer the government return to the bargaining table.

"We just want the province to come back to the table, take the concessions off the table, and let's get down to negotiations and find a settlement for these 10 locals," he said.

Drost said his members, who work across various sectors such as health care, education and public transportation, are the lowest paid in the country and many have been without a contract for almost five years.

"These workers are just asking to be treated fairly," he said.

Premier Blaine Higgs has said the union's demand for a 20 per cent wage increase over four years was more than the province could afford. He told reporters last month the government has offered other benefits such as pension improvements for some members and increased pay for casual workers.

Drost has said a government offer of a 1.25 per cent increase per year for four years is below the cost of living and is unacceptable.

He said his members have begun working to the letter of their contracts but he would not say what services would be disrupted in the event of a strike, which he said could happen as early as next Tuesday.

It's unclear what impact a strike would have because many union members are front-line workers and are deemed essential, which prevents them from walking off the job.

The union sent a letter to the premier last week asking the government to continue negotiating, Drost said Tuesday.

"The ball's in your court, Mr. Higgs," Drost said. "Our members have given us a very clear and strong mandate … we will do whatever is necessary to ensure that they are treated equally and fairly at the bargaining table."

Later on Wednesday, Higgs issued a statement through a spokesperson, saying the government is willing to return to the table "as soon as CUPE is prepared to come forward with revised wage proposals."

"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."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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