New Brunswick government cancels throne speech to resume session amid strike

·3 min read

FREDERICTON — The New Brunswick government has cancelled Tuesday's planned throne speech and instead will resume the session of the legislature that was held in the spring.

The Speaker's office sent a notice to all members of the legislature late Monday morning to notify them of the change. The move came amid a public service strike involving 22,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and threats of possible back-to-work legislation.

Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters late Monday afternoon that while a back-to-work order is possible, it isn't planned for Tuesday.

"Every day will be based on what we see for actions from CUPE and how that is threatening the well-being of New Brunswickers. It's going to be a day-by-day thing," Higgs said. "Not having the throne speech does give us additional flexibility that allows us to move quicker as needed."

CUPE spokesman Simon Ouellette said he hopes the premier will make an offer to return to the bargaining table. "The premier has the power to offer fair wages to front-line workers," he said Monday in an interview. "The strike could have been avoided if he was more reasonable at the bargaining table."

"It would be very counterproductive to bring in back-to-work legislation because that won't make the issues such as recruitment and retention disappear," Ouellette said. "These must be dealt with at the bargaining table through fair wages."

Earlier in the day, the leader of the official Opposition said Higgs should be locked in a negotiating room with striking public sector workers instead of locking some of them out. Liberal Leader Roger Melanson told reporters the government seemed intent on punishing employees, as opposed to trying to settle with them on adequate wages and benefits.

All schools in the province moved to online learning Monday after the labour dispute had forced the cancellation of classes on Friday. The government has also locked out members of two locals that represent school staff.

Those who walked off the job Friday included school bus drivers, custodians, mechanics, some health-care workers in rehabilitation and therapy, educational support staff, and workers in transportation, corrections and the community college system.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said Monday the union only gave late notice of the job action involving bus drivers.

"As we did not receive formal notification from most of the CUPE workers who have been out on strike since Friday morning, that put us in the difficult position of having no idea at any given hour or day which schools were going to be affected. Those plans have not been shared with us," Cardy told reporters.

The minister, however, said if the union is willing to share its plans in advance concerning which workers will be off on specific days, then perhaps some of the schools could be reopened for in-person learning.

Higgs said he still hoped to present a throne speech later this fall, but right now it was important to "get right down to business."

Melanson was critical of the government, saying the province is not trying to resolve the issues in the labour dispute.

Before contract talks broke off Tuesday night, the union was seeking a 12 per cent raise over four years, while the province offered an 8.5 per cent wage increase over five years.

Melanson said the two sides aren't too far apart and should have negotiated over the weekend.

"(The government) should work with them — having good working conditions and adequate benefits and salaries so they can work to their full potential," Melanson said. "I am worried what the premier will do."

Green Leader David Coon said back-to-work legislation is "absolutely the wrong thing to do."

"Last week, the union and the government were so close," he said. "It's resolvable. Give me a day and I could find the sweet spot for everyone concerned."

"The premier needs to go back to the table. That's what's needed to resolve this," Coon said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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