In 1992, 20,000 CUPE members in New Brunswick walked out for eight days to force the government to respect their contracts.

Simon Ouellette | CUPE Communications

One after another, provincial bargaining units in New Brunswick are receiving “deadlock declarations” from the NB Labour Board. After fruitless years in bargaining, it is clear that contract talks with the province are going nowhere. Premier Blaine Higgs is pushing major CUPE locals towards a strike situation.

Before Christmas, in the middle of the second COVID-19 wave, Premier Blaine Higgs mandated a wage freeze for all NB public sector workers followed by three years of one percent increases. Half a year later, Higgs has not yet altered his collision course with the public sector.

Major locals such as the Departments of Transportation and Tourism (CUPE 1190), Corrections (CUPE 1251), Community Colleges (CUPE 5017), Social Development (CUPE 1418) and Education workers (CUPE 2745) have reached this formal impasse. For these 8000 members, the only step remaining is a strike vote.

Bargaining talks with the health care workers of CUPE 1252, and the school bus drivers, maintenance and custodial staff of CUPE 1253, have not been fruitful either. It is just a matter of time before these two locals, which represent close to 12,500 members, reach a deadlock too.

Blaine Higgs is playing a dangerous game of chicken if he thinks that essential workers who fought off COVID-19 will simply change course rather than unite for a strike – perhaps a massive provincial one.

Journalists from the progressive NB Media Coop to the Irving-owned Telegraph Journal have already drawn parallels with the general strike of 1992, where CUPE members illegally walked off the job en masse and won.

Not once since 1992 have all provincial locals seen their bargaining timelines align to allow for true coordinated bargaining. More than two thirds of CUPE New Brunswick 20,000 strong members are now in this position. Compared to 1992, citizens are much more aware of the importance of public services. Through their dedication and sacrifices, workers are holding our system together. Residents have seen the severity of the recruitment and retention crisis in most sectors. They see that maintaining the lowest wages in Canada is not a winning strategy for our communities.

By promising nothing to everyone, the Premier has put all the right ingredients together for mass worker solidarity in the public sector.

To paraphrase Joe Ettor, a union organizer from days gone by: “If the workers want to win, all they have to do is recognize their own solidarity. They have nothing to do but fold their arms and the province will stop. United, the workers are more powerful with their hands in their pockets than all the bosses, governments and their special laws.”