FREDERICTON — The premier of New Brunswick is expressing disappointment as nearly 22,000 public sector workers in New Brunswick prepare for strike votes next week after contract talks with the province have failed to reach agreement on the thorny issue of wage increases.
"Our preference is always to reach a negotiated settlement," Blaine Higgs said in a statement Friday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost said many of his members have been without a contract for five years and were ready to take action if the government didn't offer a reasonable wage increase. The 10 union locals are conducting centralized bargaining with the province to settle the issue of wages before moving to other demands specific to each local.
"At all times we have been responsible, respectful, available and prepared to negotiate fairly, and at no time were we treated with the same respect at the table," Drost said. "It's a shame."
He told reporters in Fredericton that offers from the government have been below the cost of living, which he said is unacceptable, adding that the government is seeking concessions in other areas.
The union said the best offer from the province so far was a 1.25 per cent raise per year for four years. Drost said even without the concessions being sought by government, that offer is not enough.
Higgs said the government has offered a six-year deal with 1.25 per cent increases in each of the first four years and two per cent in each of the final two years.
The union wants five per cent in each year of a four-year contract — too much at a time when the province is feeling the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic, Higgs said.
"We must remain prudent, responsible and realistic about the wage package that we offer, and I believe we have been," he said.
But Drost said the premier is out of step with the working class of the province and the union is prepared to strike if necessary.
"They are proud civil servants and they are proud for the job they do," Drost said. "They are not impressed that you've backed them into this corner, but they've had enough."
Drost said his members would be willing to accept an offer that is greater than the cost of living.
The union locals represent workers across various sectors such as health care, education and transportation, and they also represent jail guards and staff at N.B. Liquor.
As CUPE New Brunswick was completing its news conference, it said it received an offer from the province's negotiators to return to the table Friday. Those talks, however, only lasted a few minutes.
Later on Friday, Drost said the government negotiators left the bargaining table because they were unwilling to respond to an offer presented by the union Thursday night. "They were not interested in bargaining unless the union accepted concessions," Drost said in an emailed statement following the morning's news conference.
A release from the province said contingency plans are in place in the event of a strike and there are workers who are designated as essential in all CUPE units to ensure the health and safety of the public.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2021.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press