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 Services in Nursing Homes Act 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.

Workers' Forum 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 extending 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 judgment, and 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 settlement.

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 more 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 rising 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 the wage 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 also 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
from overwork.

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

Article Link:
Interview - Simon Ouellette, Communications Representative, CUPE Maritimes


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