Premier disappointed as N.B. public sector workers prepare for strike votes next week


New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs expressed disappointment on Friday as the union representing about 22,000 public sector workers said its members were preparing for strike votes because a deal couldn't be reached on wage increases.

The union wanted an increase of 20 per cent over four years, Higgs told reporters in Fredericton, which he said was more than the province could afford.

"We must remain prudent, responsible and realistic about the wage package that we offer, and I believe we have been," the premier said.

The union locals represent workers across various sectors such as health care, education and transportation, and they also represent jail guards and staff at N.B. Liquor. The union said it was conducting centralized bargaining with the province to settle the issue of wages before moving to other demands specific to each local.

"Only talking about one issue is not negotiating," Higgs said.

Earlier in the day, CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost said many of his members have been without a contract for five years and were ready to take action if the government didn't make a reasonable offer.

"At all times we have been responsible, respectful, available and prepared to negotiate fairly, and at no time were we treated with the same respect at the table," Drost said. "It's a shame."

But Higgs said all issues are on the table, not just wages. He said the government has offered a number of other items, including pension improvements for some members and increased pay for casual workers. He said it was important that union members and the public know all the details of the government offer.

Drost told reporters in Fredericton that offers from the government have been below the cost of living, which he said was unacceptable, adding that the government was seeking concessions in other areas. The union said the best offer from the province so far was a 1.25 per cent raise per year for four years. Drost said even without the concessions being sought by government, that offer was not enough.

Higgs said the government has offered a six-year deal with 1.25 per cent increases in each of the first four years and two per cent in each of the final two years. The union wants five per cent in each year of a four-year contract -- too much at a time when the province is feeling the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic, Higgs said.

Higgs said the union's demand would cost $158 million annually and the government's offer would be around $71 million per year.

Drost said the premier is out of step with the working class of the province and the union is prepared to strike if necessary. Some locals can take a strike vote as early as Sept. 7.

"They are proud civil servants and they are proud for the job they do," Drost said. "They are not impressed that you've backed them into this corner, but they've had enough."

Drost said his members would be willing to accept an offer that is greater than the cost of living.

As CUPE New Brunswick was completing its news conference Friday morning, it said it received an offer from the province's negotiators to return to the table later that day. Those talks, however, only lasted a few minutes.

In an emailed statement following the news conference, Drost said government negotiators left the bargaining table because they were unwilling to respond to an offer presented by the union Thursday night. "They were not interested in bargaining unless the union accepted concessions," Drost said.

Later that day, Higgs would not say which side left the bargaining table, but he said the government was the only side bargaining, adding that the union continued to stick with the wage demand of 20 per cent over four years.

A news release from the province said contingency plans are in place in the event of a strike and there are workers who are designated as essential in all CUPE units to ensure the health and safety of the public.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2021.