N.B. premier, ministers provide government update on public-sector strike

November 5, 2021
N.B. premier, ministers provide government update on public-sector strike

The province is holding a news conference regarding the strike involving health-care workers and thousands of other employees.

Premier Blaine Higgs, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard and Justice and Public Safety Minister and Attorney General Ted Flemming are expected to attend.

Higgs crashed a news conference by the Canadian Union of Public Employees on Friday morning as efforts to end a week-old strike by public-sector workers appeared to go off the rails.

CUPE officials were laying out a counter-proposal they made to the government overnight when the premier appeared at the news conference outside the legislature in Fredericton.

“That’s not how bargaining works,” CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost told reporters later, though Drost had challenged Higgs to “come out right now and … settle this” just before the premier’s arrival.

Higgs listened to Drost outline Thursday’s discussions for several minutes before the union offered him its microphone to address the crowd.

Higgs then laid out his position, defending pension changes in the province’s offer, and getting into back-and-forth debates with some of the union leaders and with striking workers in the crowd.

Canadian Union of Public Employees president Steve Drost handed the microphone to Premier Blaine Higgs at a union news conference Friday in Fredericton. Higgs defended the pension changes in the province’s offer the night before, and said health-care workers need to go back to work. (CBC)

“No one loses anything in their current plans,” he said, trying to explain details of the province’s proposal on pensions for two CUPE locals not part of the existing shared-risk plan.

He said health-care workers need to come back to work, which was met with jeers from the crowd. 

Eventually, he asked for a more orderly question-and-answer format. At that point, CUPE asked for its microphone back and the premier left.

The dramatic and unconventional confrontation took place just an hour after Higgs told the legislature that CUPE had promised after a marathon meeting Thursday to recommend a government offer to its members.

The first of more than 20,000 CUPE members began walking off the job last Friday morning after contract negotiations with the province collapsed for the second time.

The striking workers include jail guards, school custodians, educational assistants, court stenographers, and clerical and cleaning staff working for regional health authorities.

Higgs said in question period Friday morning that “we had a path forward when we left last night” that CUPE leaders promised to recommend to members, so he was disappointed to see health-care workers still picketing.

“We had an agreement last night,” he said. But he said there was a condition attached to it about health-care workers returning to their jobs quickly.

Higgs said Attorney-General Ted Flemming and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard “are reviewing our options at this stage,” a reference to the possibility of back-to-work legislation or the use of the province’s emergency order to end the strike.

“We are in a pandemic,” Higgs said. “We will address the issues in our hospitals. … We will be moving forward to get health-care workers back to work.”

The government has scheduled a news conference for 2:45 p.m.

Drost told the outdoor news conference that he sent the government a counter-proposal to Thursday night’s offer at 4:03 a.m.

He said if the province had accepted it, he had been prepared to send union members back to work Friday morning, but no response had come.

“We have gone above and beyond every step of this way to protect the public and protect you, but once again, tricks are being played,” he said.

The first of several CUPE locals representing 20,000 workers walked off the job the morning of Oct. 29. 

Drost arrived for the meeting with Higgs on Thursday at 1 p.m. and left at 8:45 p.m.

The dispute has focused on CUPE’s push for wage increases, but Higgs is insisting that the union also agree to shift two of the union locals into the province’s shared-risk pension plan. 

That dispute over pensions was the focus of Higg’s impromptu debates with CUPE members during his surprise appearance at the news conference.

Premier Blaine Higgs arrives at the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ news conference at the foot of the legislature Friday morning. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Higgs said during question period that the province had received a response from CUPE but would not say what it was. 

But he said the union had raised “something additional” that wasn’t part of Thursday’s discussions.

“We are now focused on the emergency order and the health-care system in our province.”

Drost called Higgs’s appearance at the news conference “so bizarre” and would not say whether he thought health-care locals would comply if they were legally ordered back to work.

“This has been so unusual, this round of bargaining. We’ve never seen anything like this, ever.”

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