When members of CUPE 1251 walked off the job October 3 it was about ‘respect’.
“We thought the government would come quickly to its senses but instead the Lord government wanted confrontation,” said Danny Légère, president of the local, which represents 520 corrections officers, community colleges custodians and human services counselors in New Brunswick.
“We were only asking for wage parity. The gap between members of this local and workers doing similar public service jobs in New Brunswick and the Maritimes varies from $1.25 to $2 an hour,” explained Légère.
Instead of returning to the table and trying to negotiate a settlement, the government’s response was a massive advertising campaign. Day in day out, the employers filled the airwaves with messages like: there are no recruitment and retention issues with this group; there are more applicants than available positions; wages for this group are higher than the private sector; their demands are not reasonable!
“In other words, we can replace you and don’t expect an increase of more than 2 per cent a year,” said Légère.
Garbage piling up
With more than 75 per cent of prison guards designated essential, things were going pretty smoothly in the provincial jails. But the strike was taking its toll in the community colleges. After a week, garbage was piling up and classes were cancelled.
Students at the community colleges started to mobilize. They organized marches asking for the parties to return to the table to save the school year.
As the strike dragged on with no sign of talks, the buzz in the capital was ‘back-to-work legislation’. Pressed by the media on what the government was going to do about students’ concerns, Premier Bernard Lord promised “to intervene to ensure that community college students don’t lose their academic year.” The opposition was put on notice to be ready to be called back to deal with back-to-work legislation.
Meanwhile, support for the strikers was growing. CUPE New Brunswick launched its coordinated bargaining strategy. A provincial meeting was held in Fredericton with all CUPE local executives. Action committee meetings with our 20,000 members were organized in every region of the province. The message: Get ready to walk off the job if the government legislates Local 1251 back to work.
On October 21, Premier Lord asked the union to return to the table. Negotiations began the next day and by mid-afternoon on October 24, there was a tentative agreement. Members of Local 1251 accepted the deal, which provided a hike of 14.67 per cent over 4.5 years including wage increases, adjustments and bonuses.
Setting the stage
“There is no doubt in my mind that the government tried to set an example with Local 1251,” said CUPE New Brunswick president David Rouse.
Three more public service contracts are up for negotiation including CUPE 1252, which represents 6,000 hospital workers.
After three weeks at the table, CUPE 1252 asked for conciliation.
“The government negotiators dictated what the wage increase should be before negotiations even began. They arbitrarily set an increase in this case of 2 per cent and unilaterally determined what is ‘fair’ and must be accepted by the various unions,” explained Rouse.
“We are not going to settle for the government trend of 2 per cent a year. It seems the Lord government is heading into a labour storm like they faced during its last mandate.”
The day the community colleges reopened in the province, the heads of all New Brunswick unions met in Fredericton to discuss a strategy to protect free collective bargaining.
They agreed to form a common front to offset any move by the province to impose back-to-work legislation in upcoming negotiations.
Premier Lord had best watch out. The thunder he’s hearing is the united strength of CUPE New Brunswick and our allies in the labour movement.