On March 7, New
Brunswick nursing home workers took a 94 per cent strike vote to
support their demands for wages and working conditions that they deem
acceptable. The provincial government, instead of responding in a
positive and respectful manner, applied for and was granted an order
from the Court of Queen's Bench to interfere with the workers' right to
strike in defence of their demands. The day before the 4,100 workers
would have walked off the job on March 10, the court granted an order
depriving the workers of their right to strike for 10 days.
At the end of 2018, the
New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board ruled that the Essential
violated the right to collective bargaining for employees. According to
the ruling, the designation of essential care services in the event of
a strike did not apply to nursing homes. The government intervened to
seek a judicial review of this decision, a case that will be heard by
the Court of Queen's Bench.
interviewed Simon Ouellette, Communications Representative for CUPE
Maritimes, to find out about the situation facing these workers.
Workers' Forum: What are the latest
developments since the New Brunswick government sought and obtained a
court order to prevent you from going on strike?
Simon Ouellette: The government is trying
hard to delay our ability to exercise our right to strike. We are going
back to court on April 17 to deal with the government's appeal of the
court order. As you know, there was a court order obtained by the
government on March 9 forbidding us from going on strike for 10 days.
Following this, the government requested a second extended order to
maintain this ban. The union challenged this request and a judge then
considered both the application for an extended order and the original
order. She said neither of them was acceptable. She said that the
original order caused irreparable harm to the workers and that
the order would cause them more harm. She ruled that workers should
have a full right to strike until the judicial review of the
constitutionality of the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act
is completed. This is
another legal process that is running parallel to the first on the
court order. The
judge ruled that, pending resolution of this issue, we would be
accorded an ordinary right to strike under the Industrial Relations
Act, which is the law that governs the entire private sector.
Nursing homes are considered to belong to the private sector, so this
law would apply to them. The government immediately appealed the
it is this appeal that will be heard this week.
The situation has been made
a judicial issue at the
moment and the issue of the constitutional rights of workers is
suspended. It seems to me that any delay in justice is a denial of
justice. Our situation is very litigious but we are talking here about
fundamental rights. The right to strike is a constitutional right
protected by Section 2 on the
freedom of association in the Canadian Charter of Rights and
Freedoms, yet governments try every time to put in place new laws
that deny this. These new laws may be overturned by the courts but that
can take years and during that process workers are deprived of a new
collective agreement. These are years when we do not improve the
working conditions for those people who actually work in the system.
There are people who may be retiring and may not even see any
In these circumstances, our union has said that if you
have taken away the legal right to go on strike, and we will be tied up
in court for a long time, then let's go to binding arbitration. We have
asked for binding arbitration as a kind of compensatory means to
unblock the situation. The provincial government said no. It said that
it could agree
to arbitration, but with a restriction. The restriction is that there
could be not be a wage increase of more than one per cent. We are no
advanced with binding arbitration if it includes this restriction
dictated by the government. We are confident that an impartial
arbitrator would be able to see the injustice that exists in the
nursing homes, that an
arbitrator would be able to say that one per cent increase is below the
cost of living. The government is adamant that the wage increase must
be one per cent per year for a four-year contract. Our demand is that
increase be at least above the rise of the cost of living. The aim is
to make wage gains and to put an end to actual wage reductions. This is
essential for the retention and recruitment of staff.
Every week lost is a harm done to workers. We are
talking about a
four-year contract and we have been negotiating for nearly 30 months.
The collective agreement ended in October 2016.
WF: At the April 12 protest there were
nurses, paramedics and other public sector workers. What did they
express by their participation?
SO: Everyone is in solidarity with our
cause. In these actions, at the moment it is mostly people who are
represented by CUPE. There is great solidarity within the union. At the
same time, we invite all workers to participate. The workers understand
that if one worker gets hit the government will want to do the same to
everyone. If the government is able to deny a wage increase that goes
beyond the cost of living to the women and men who care for the most
vulnerable people they can do the same for all workers in the public
sector. If the government can get away with taking a hard line against
those who provide this care, it will not act differently towards
other public sector workers.
Nursing home workers tell the minister to walk a
mile in their shoes
which are worn out
At the moment, negotiations are at a standstill. The
Progressive Conservative government, like the previous Liberal
government, is putting forward a classic neo-liberal vision and a
classic austerity program with wage cuts and chronic underfunding of
the public sector, for eventual privatization in the longer term. Since
the 2008 crisis there has
been no economic recovery in terms of the purchasing power of New
Brunswickers. The provincial government sees its revenues getting
reduced as it sees private sector investment falter. The government has
a narrow vision of what keeps New Brunswick's economy going. According
to the government it is private investment that counts, that's all.
Its logic is that if private investment is decreasing public spending
must be cut.
The mandate is something that the government has given
internally, that in negotiations with nurses, bus drivers, hospital
employees, etc., wage increases must be around one per cent a year.
We hope the situation can be unblocked. We want to
regain the right to strike. At the same time, there is no one who wants
a strike in nursing homes. We do not want a strike. We want an
acceptable contract, with fair and stable working conditions so we have
the staff needed to take care of people. The government may be burying
its head in
the sand and wanting to hold a hard line on wages, but that will not
eliminate the problem of staff retention.
This article was published in
Number 14 - April 18, 2019
Interview - Simon Ouellette, Communications
Representative, CUPE Maritimes