Thousands of protesters gather at N.B. legislature to support striking public workers

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FREDERICTON — Thousands of noisy protesters descended on the front lawn of the New Brunswick legislature Tuesday in support of striking public servants, as government and opposition politicians gathered inside to discuss the labour dispute.

About 22,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees have been on strike since last Friday, demanding higher wages. The strike involves school bus drivers, educational support staff, and workers in transportation, corrections and the community college system.

Premier Blaine Higgs's government has offered them an 8.5 per cent pay increase over five years, while the union is seeking 12 per cent over four years. The government is also seeking to make changes to pensions for school bus drivers and to provide a pension to 2,200 education assistants who don't have one.

Higgs told the legislature Tuesday the government's position is generous.

"Who pays for that?" the premier said about the cost of the public service. "The taxpayers, many of whom don't get the same benefits."

In response, Liberal Opposition Leader Roger Melanson criticized the government for the labour dispute and for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This province is in a mess," Melanson said.

The legislature resumed Tuesday after the government cancelled a throne speech that was scheduled for that day, which would have opened a new session and led to a couple of days of parliamentary procedure. Instead, legislators resumed the previous session.

Higgs said cancelling the throne speech allowed the legislature to restart its work immediately. The premier has repeatedly stated he was considering tabling back-to-work legislation, but none was introduced Tuesday.

In the house, Green Leader David Coon said the legislature should have the power to order the government back to the bargaining table. He told reporters later in the day that Higgs could resolve the labour dispute by the end of the week if he was willing to negotiate wages and set the pension issue aside.

Higgs, however, told reporters Tuesday that pensions have been part of the negotiations from the start and must remain part of the talks.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said it's imperative that both sides get back to the table and asked the premier when that would happen.

Higgs responded that he's prepared to negotiate, but he said it's also up to the union to return to the table. He told reporters he's confident talks will resume soon, but wouldn't say when or if government would make the first move.

"I'll discuss with my colleagues what makes sense for our position," the premier said.

Earlier on Tuesday, CUPE New Brunswick president Steve Drost said the union is ready to negotiate, but he said the government must be willing to improve its offer. In an interview, he said the union's demand is already well below its opening position, adding that CUPE won't go any lower.

The protesters — striking workers and their supporters — held signs and noisemakers on Tuesday as they clogged downtown streets in Fredericton, marching toward the legislature.

"The wages (the government is) offering are still below the cost of living, and they haven't had wage increases above the cost of living in 15 to 20 years," Drost said about his members.

Higgs has said the province can't afford to pay workers what their union is asking, but Drost said the government is less concerned about money and more interested in attacking public servants.

"The government has forced this to happen, and it's unnecessary," Drost said.

The government over the weekend locked out CUPE members who work at schools and sent those deemed essential home without pay. But the province's labour board ruled late Monday that the government did not have the power to lock out the essential workers without paying them.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy confirmed Tuesday those workers will not lose wages.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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