June 25, 2021 - No. 61

New Brunswick Workers Seek Solution to Crisis
in Recruitment and Retention

Workers Give Government 100 Days to Negotiate Collective Agreements with Wages Acceptable to Themselves

Standing Up to Government's Abuse of Power - Interview, Steve Drost

New Brunswick Workers Seek Solution to Crisis in Recruitment and Retention

Workers Give Government 100 Days to Negotiate Collective Agreements with Wages
Acceptable to Themselves

At a press conference held on May 28, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) New Brunswick put the provincial government on notice that it had 100 days to settle collective agreements with many CUPE locals or face job action by the workers. Nearly 30 have now passed. Close to 22,000 of the 28,000 CUPE New Brunswick members are still trying to negotiate labour contracts with wages workers deem acceptable. For 8,580 workers negotiations are deadlocked and more than 13,280 are headed for conciliation in the next two months. The union is giving Premier Blaine Higgs until Labour Day in September to meet the workers' demands to fix recruitment and retention issues and offer wages that workers find acceptable.

"If the Premier and his cabinet refuse to act in a reasonable and responsible way, once these 100 days have passed, CUPE members will have to mount a province-wide coordinated action. The Premier is forcing job action on the citizens of New Brunswick," said CUPE New Brunswick President Steve Drost. "This ultimatum, as far as we are concerned, is the most responsible way to get this government to act," Drost added. "By September, most residents will already be vaccinated. A hundred days is more than generous, considering that most of these workers have been waiting up to four years to get a contract."

To add insult to injury, last year, on December 11, the Higgs government announced that they were going to give all public sector workers a zero increase for the year that they worked through the pandemic. Drost made the point that the provincial government should not make the mistake of thinking that essential workers who went all out to fight COVID-19 for the people of New Brunswick will not unite and defend their rights and dignity through coordinated job actions.

Workers' Forum is posting below an interview with Steve Drost conducted a few days before the press conference.

(Photo: NB Media Coop)

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Standing up to Government's Abuse of Power

Rally at Sackville Hospital, February 16, 2020, against closing of Emergency Room

Steve Drost is the President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) New Brunswick. He was elected on April 24, 2021 at the union's annual Convention.

Workers' Forum: How many workers does CUPE New Brunswick represent and what type of jobs do they do?

Steve Drost: We represent 28,000 workers in over 100 different classifications. We have members in pretty well every sector and every community in New Brunswick. We are in the hospitals, schools, social services, communications, transportation, nursing homes, long-term care and more. We represent a wide variety of public service workers.

WF: What are the main concerns of CUPE New Brunswick at this time?

SD: I and many of the other leaders of CUPE in New Brunswick see that public sector unions and public services are under attack by the current government. This has been going on for many years with the austerity programs that governments continuously implement. We have serious concerns because it is not only the 28,000 members of CUPE New Brunswick that are under attack but all public sector workers in the province. At CUPE, there are currently five provincial locals, large groups within CUPE New Brunswick, that have reached deadlocks in their negotiations with the province, and which are now in a legal position to take strike votes. There are several more CUPE Locals getting very close to an impasse. All groups have been trying to negotiate a fair collective agreement, some for two years, others for up to four years. Last year on December 11 the provincial government announced that they were going to give us all a zero increase for the year that we worked through the pandemic. We see that as an insult and certainly disrespectful.

Even prior to the pandemic we were facing a serious recruitment and retention crisis in our nursing homes, in the hospitals, in our schools, including psychologists and other support services in the schools. We are experiencing a recruitment and retention crisis with social workers doing Child Protection and services to seniors. CUPE New Brunswick is one of six major unions in New Brunswick. All the other provincial unions are facing the same problems; a government that won't negotiate fairly, a government that we feel is being abusive. We consider this an abuse of power and control. We have had over 12 years without fair wage increases that keep up with the cost of living. I am talking here about 95 per cent of the public sector workers. Very few have been able to keep up with the cost of living.

The government is basically attacking public sector unions. We see this is as part of a much bigger plan. We know that over the years they have been able to reduce the size, strength and power of private sector unions and now they are coming after the public sector unions. We have serious concerns about this because we know the negative impacts that would have on our communities and on our local economies. More importantly, citizens deserve good quality public services. It has reached the point where we have decided that we need to fight back, and not just for our jobs and wages. We need to take action to protect public services. We want governments to invest in public services and not try to dismantle them and sell them off to their friends.

Government continues to privatize different bits and pieces of public services. For example, New Brunswick once had a Crown Corporation called the New Brunswick Investment Management Corporation that managed the public sector workers' pensions. This has been converted into a private agency, a non-profit group called Vestcor. This so-called not-for-profit agency is now managing many public sector workers' pensions. Government also wants to privatize different pieces of the health care system and different pieces of the education system.

They have de-invested in public services with their austerity agendas for more than two decades. We were facing serious recruitment and retention issues before the pandemic. COVID-19 has really shown where we have serious gaps in our public services and just how fragile the citizens' social safety net really is. For example, CUPE Local 1252, the New Brunswick Council of Hospital Unions, issued a press release recently in which they identified hundreds of vacant positions that are not being filled. I know the same thing is happening with the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions (NBCNHU) which is also part of CUPE New Brunswick. The NBCNHU have 300 to 400 vacant positions that are not being filled. There are many more examples like that. This is an attack on public services and their current lack of fair collective bargaining is a blatant attack on public sector workers.

We feel it is necessary to take a strong position because, at the end of the day, it is about social and economic justice. The economic inequality is worse now than it has been as far back as I can remember, and I have been a practicing frontline social worker for 33 1/2 years. This inequality has just blown up during the pandemic.

We believe that this inequality has a lot to do with the choices that are being made by the right-wing ideologues that are in power in governments. They continue to say that they want to invest in the private sector. They do not want to invest in public services and certainly do not want to treat public service workers fairly and even allow them a wage to keep up with the cost of living. They are offering a zero increase to the workers who have put their lives on the line. It was the frontline essential workers, be it private sector or public sector, unionized or non-unionized, that helped this province through the pandemic. For the Premier to turn around and announce that his government is going to give all public sector workers a zero wage increase for 2021 is an insult. So many of these public sector workers have been negotiating for three to four years, which is ridiculous, and the government has been delaying and delaying, never coming to the table prepared to really negotiate. So what the government is expecting a lot of these groups to do is accept three years of one per cent increases, from 2018 to 2020, and then for this year, zero. That is where we see abuse of power. It is unacceptable.

CUPE New Brunswick represents 28,000 workers and there are almost 20,000 of them without a contract at the moment. This is the case for a lot of other public sector workers in the province as well.

WF: What is the work of CUPE New Brunswick at this time to change the situation in favour of the people?

SD: The public are starting to realize how important public services and public sector workers are, because workers are putting their lives on the line to help the province get through the pandemic. We don't take our money and hide it offshore. We spend it in our local economies. We are the backbone of the local economies.

We are working very closely with all our leaders at the table, and our leaders who are on the CUPE NB Executive. We are talking with other public sector unions and community allies. Our members are fed up and we are listening to them and working with them to do what is right. We are looking at what types of job actions may be necessary. We are hopeful that with many groups in a strike position, our growing mobilization of members and community support, the government will sit down, stop being disingenuous and start negotiating fairly. We are working on a campaign right now with external messaging for the public and internal messaging for our members. This is a continuation of our Bargaining Forward campaign that our workers requested and have embraced.

(Photos: WF, B. Wark, NBCNHU)

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