November 10, 2021 - No. 105

New Brunswick Emergency Order Forces
Health Care Workers Back to Work

Reckless Use of Pandemic to Impose Anti-Worker, Anti-Social Agenda

Nova Scotia
Demand for Measures to Attract and Retain Continuing Care Workers
Pugwash Salt Mine Workers on Strike

New Brunswick Emergency Order Forces Health Care Workers Back to Work

Reckless Use of Pandemic to Impose Anti-Worker, Anti-Social Agenda

CUPE holds a press conference outside the New Brunswick Legislature demanding the government negotiate a just settlement, November 5, 2021.

On November 5, New Brunswick's Minister of Justice and Public Safety issued a mandatory order to force striking health care workers back to work. The workers are part of the 22,000 workers from 10 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals on strike for wages they consider acceptable and essential to solving the recruitment and retention crisis in public services in the province. As of October 31, the government of Premier Blaine Higgs had already locked out nearly 3,000 CUPE education workers participating in the strike, forcing schools to close and imposing remote learning, against the interests and wishes of families and youth.

It is significant that the health care workers are being forced back to work and their strike declared illegal through an order signed by the minister responsible for public safety. The just struggle of the workers, who have done everything possible to avoid having to strike to obtain a settlement they consider acceptable, is thus being characterized as a threat to public safety. The mandatory order goes so far as to provide that if workers do not return to work as ordered, employers will be allowed to fire them and replace them with non-union employees or even contract out their jobs. This anti-worker, anti-public service dictate is said to be necessary for public safety, but what could be more harmful than firing experienced and organized workers and replacing them with who knows what, possibly private agencies? This is a serious matter of concern for New Brunswick workers and all workers across the country and makes it all the more urgent to oppose the New Brunswick government's retrogressive and dangerous agenda.

The ministerial order forcing health care workers back to work was adopted after the Higgs government refused to consider the union's latest offer. On the evening of November 4, Premier Higgs, accompanied by a small delegation, met with some of the members of the union's centralized negotiating team. He presented an offer which the delegation then presented to the entire centralized bargaining team. The team submitted a counter-offer to which the government never responded. This is the third time the Higgs government has walked away from negotiations in a few months, this time to impose a ministerial order to crush the health care workers' strike.

The union reported that the two parties had been very close to an agreement. The centralized bargaining was supposed to focus on wages only, and the difference was $0.50 per hour over a five-year contract. However, the government deliberately sabotaged any possibility of an agreement, as it has done all along, by maintaining its demands for concessions on the pension plans of two of the 10 locals, to turn their defined benefit plan into a so-called shared risk plan that workers oppose. Through such a plan, workers' pension benefits can be cut if the plan is declared underfunded. In addition to the fact that pensions were not even supposed to be part of centralized bargaining, the union reports that the government tried to force through this concession by arguing that these workers' current pension plan was underfunded. This is true, but only because the government has not put any money into the plan for years, as it is legally obligated to do.[1]

The ministerial mandatory order was passed under the renewed state of emergency declared by the Higgs government on September 24 in response to the province's worsening COVID-19 situation. The order decrees that all striking CUPE health care workers are now considered to be essential and must return to work as of midnight on November 6. It decrees that anyone who fails to comply with the order will be fined a minimum of $480 and a maximum of $20,400 for each day or part of the day not worked, and that the same will apply to anyone who advises a person not to comply with the order. The organization to which a worker belongs will have to pay a minimum fine of $100,000 for each day or part of the day that it does not comply with the order, which sets no maximum fine.

The union has strongly denounced the ministerial order as an attack on its right to negotiate terms and conditions it deems acceptable. The union has also been informed by its members that although the order covers all striking health care employees, many of them were actually turned away when they reported to work.

"Our members were upset, but prepared to go back to work this morning," said Brent Wiggins, CUPE Local 1190 president and member of the Centralized Bargaining Team, in a press release issued by CUPE on November 6. "Now, they are being told their services are no longer needed. The use of such heavy-handed tactics to attack members' rights, instead of signing a collective agreement, is nonsensical."

"Mr. Higgs, you will not break our solidarity. We will not be divided," declared Norma Robinson, president of CUPE Local 1252 and a member of the centralized bargaining team, in the same press release.

The union has announced that it will take legal action to defend its members.

Workers' Forum joins with all New Brunswick workers and residents in denouncing this abuse of power by the government. Using a crisis such as the pandemic as an opportunity to pursue a dirty agenda against those who are defending and protecting the public puts all New Brunswickers at risk. In blaming workers for the impacts of the strike on services, the government is hiding its own responsibility for the decades' long attacks by successive governments on social programs and public services that have wrecked society's ability to deal with crises such as COVID-19. It is the working people who have and continue to hold the system together at the risk of their health, safety and lives.
Let's all demand an end to this anti-worker, anti-social agenda by defending the rights and dignity of workers and by placing their claims at the heart of sorting out the problems facing public services and society at large.


1.  Premier Blaine Higgs is renowned for having imposed a "shared risk" pension plan on workers at the Irving refinery when he was the company's senior executive. He was the government's finance minister when it passed legislation in 2013 mandating the conversion of public sector workers' defined benefit pension plans to shared risk plans. Several unions are still engaged in court proceedings against this attack on their pension plans.

(Photos: CUPE NB)

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Nova Scotia

Demand for Measures to Attract and Retain
Continuing Care Workers

Nova Scotia workers and their organizations are demanding that definite measures be taken to attract and retain more continuing care workers. While acknowledging the plans of the provincial government to hire recruiters in order to hire more health care workers, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) writes in a November 1 media release that the plan will not ensure that this work is adequately funded, staffed and treated as an integral part of improving the health care system overall. Continuing care workers provide care for people outside of hospitals, in their private homes and long-term care homes.

"Right now, we need our elected leaders to take a giant leap towards supporting Continuing Care Assistants," said NSGEU President Jason MacLean. "You can hire all the recruiters you want, but if the wages and benefits aren't competitive with what is being offered in other jurisdictions, workers will not choose to be a part of Nova Scotia's continuing care sector."

According to the NSGEU, there are two immediate steps that government must take: implement the recommended minimum 4.1 daily hours of care for residents in long-term care facilities that has been put forward by several health care organizations, and implement standard shifts to alleviate stress on home care workers.

The press release points out that in the home care sector, in the absence of standard work schedules, home care workers can be required to be available for 12 to 14 hours a day for what can amount to just a few hours of pay. In some agencies, if a client visit is cancelled, the employee has to be willing to pick up visits, at any time, over a seven to 14-day period to ensure they get paid. Shifts are subject to change without notice, leaving families struggling to make childcare arrangements, forcing employees to miss previously scheduled appointments and preventing employees from being able to fulfill previously made commitments to their families and communities.

The implementation of standard shifts would go a long way to alleviate the immense stress faced by home care workers by bringing stability to their work schedules and would improve recruitment and retention of workers in the sector. As well, the NSGEU points out that to solve the problem of recruitment and retention it is necessary that the agencies be funded properly to provide reliable, standard schedules for employees.

A related problem, according to the NSGEU, is that the ability of agencies to offer income guarantees is hindered by their inadequate funding. 

The union notes that hospitals, long-term care homes and home care are competing for workers because compensation levels are not equal. It is proposing that the government provide funding in a way that allows for equivalent compensation levels for all continuing care workers.

"The Premier has pledged to fix health care, and it is critical that we remember that long-term care and home care are a part of health care. They cannot be neglected any longer," said Jason MacLean.

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Pugwash Salt Mine Workers on Strike

The 140 unionized workers at the Windsor Salt mine in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, members of Unifor Local 823, went on strike on November 5. Their collective agreement expired in October 2020. On August 26, workers massively rejected the company's offer. Workers are saying that during negotiations, the company began stockpiling salt in Halifax and Prince Edward Island, to prepare to keep business going in the case of an extended strike or lockout.

According to the union, the main points of contention are demands for concessions related to work hours, layoff provisions, and pensions. Workers have already experienced layoffs twice in the past year. The first was during the winter, when the company used the pretext of a mild winter to lay off of a large number of workers, under the hoax that there would be a reduced need for deicing salt for roads, one of the mine's main products. The second layoff took place in the summer, during a shutdown to replace the mine's headframe. The headframe is a structure above the mine that allows for the hoisting of machinery, personnel and materials.

Windsor Salt was recently purchased by U.S.-based Stone Canyon Holdings which acquired the Pugwash operation in April as part of its acquisition of the North American salt assets of the previous owner, Germany-based K+S Aktiengesellschaft AG. Union leaders at the Pugwash mine reported that they have contacted the union representatives at other company operations in North America and have been informed that the company is demanding similar concessions from workers at those operations.

With this new acquisition, Stone Canyon's salt business, SCI Salt, is now considered one of the world's largest salt producers. On its website, the company informs that SCI Salt is a producer and a supplier for a variety of industries, including deicing and winter road maintenance, food, animal nutrition, pharmaceutical, water softening and pool supply, among others. It has an annual production capacity of over 29 million tons in 24 salt production facilities, 15 processing plants and 130 storage locations across North America, South America and the Caribbean.

(Photos: Unifor)

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