No to Negation of Workers’ Rights!
On December 11, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs informed officials of the Canadian Union of Public Employees New Brunswick at a meeting that his government is planning to impose a wage freeze followed by wage restraint on all the public sector workers in the province, unionized and non-unionized. This comes in the midst of the stresses and anxiety caused by pandemic working conditions. Already, for twelve years, New Brunswick workers have been fighting against wage freezes imposed by successive governments which have declared they have “wage restraint mandates.’
As a justification for the imposition of this dictate regarding public sector workers’ contract negotiations, Premier Higgs told the press: “What we want to do is manage expectations, and turn this negotiation into thinking different about what we learned from COVID. Let’s not turn it into a lot of discussion around salaries we’re trying to protect, but what we can do differently to meet our needs and what we learned through COVID.”
What workers learned in a dramatic way from the pandemic is that they are the essential factor in preserving and advancing society, and that their living and working conditions and their say in these conditions make the difference between life and death. They have learned that economic recovery must be human-centred, with public enterprise under the control of the people to look after the well-being of the people. The elimination of public sector workers’ ability to negotiate wages and working conditions that are acceptable to themselves aggravates all the problems of the sector and affects the delivery of public services. This announcement will affect retention of public servants as well as the attraction of new public servants. The destruction of the public service in favour of hiring private contractors to carry out their work will further destroy the fabric of society as everyone is further forced to fend for themselves.
What the Premier seems to believe is that COVID-19 provides “an opportunity” to impose dictates in the name of high ideals about protecting people’s health. It is a sick mind-set behind which is the pay-the-rich schemes demanded by the narrow private interests which have taken over the decision-making power and operation of state agencies, beginning with the premier’s office. Higgs’ “what we can do differently to meet our needs” shows he makes no bones about his government’s stand that narrow private interests are the key to post-pandemic recovery and that all society’s resources must be put under their control and ownership.
Workers’ Forum stands firmly with the New Brunswick workers facing this renewed assault, and calls upon all Canadian workers to support them in their just fight. It is as clear as clear can be that our future and our security lie in the fight to affirm of the rights of all.
(Photo: CUPE NB)
Public Sector Workers Oppose Government Dictate
Interview with Simon Ouellette by Workers’ Forum
Simon Ouellette is the Communications Representative, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Maritimes (New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island).
Workers’ Forum: In its December 11 press release, the Canadian Union of Public Employees New Brunswick, opposes the imposition of a wage freeze on public sector workers by the Blaine Higgs government. Can you tell us more about this?
Simon Ouellette: CUPE New Brunswick organized a press conference on the afternoon of December 11 immediately after meeting with the Premier. At our request, the Premier agreed to meet with the elected officials of the major CUPE locals in the province, large locals that are without a collective agreement at this time. Some have been without a contract since 2016, the majority of them have been without a contract since 2018. We’re talking about 20,500 workers who are struggling with governments that have not wanted to negotiate with them in recent years, both the Liberals who let negotiations drag on and the Conservatives in power at this time.
In the days leading up to our meeting with the Premier, we learned through the media that the government intends to impose a wage freeze on the entire public service. The Premier confirmed to us at our meeting that he intends to impose a wage freeze for the first year and then a wage restraint on the entire public service, unionized and non-unionized.
This statement is not being made at the bargaining tables. It is being made publicly, in the newspapers, in a politicized manner. It’s shocking to hear that, especially in a time of pandemic.
There are negotiations going on right now, among health care workers in particular, but they are not real negotiations because the government’s offer to them is a wage freeze followed by wage restraint, which is exactly what we heard at our meeting. There’s really no room for bargaining in there.
WF: What is CUPE’s position on this government dictate?
SO: We’ve been saying for years that wages have been stagnating for at least a dozen years. We have faced zero increases, one per cent increases, wage restraint mandates from previous administrations. Wage increases over all these years have been well below the increase in the cost of living. All of this has resulted in our members falling behind in terms of their real purchasing power. We want to counteract that.
The cost of living is rising. In New Brunswick, the cost of rent is out of control right now, there is a housing crisis in the province. New Brunswick is the province in Canada where tenants’ rights are weakest. It is a paradise for landlords. Gasoline and heating are extremely expensive. The electricity bill is much higher in New Brunswick than in Quebec for example. We have small province wages with big city bills.
In our opinion, the best way out of the pandemic is by stimulating sustainable growth, putting money in the pockets of our workers, into our public infrastructure, into our public systems. You can’t stimulate growth through subsidies to corporations.
CUPE is going to fight the imposition of a wage freeze and wage restraints.
At the end of the day, the people who have the last word are our members. It’s up to them at each table to decide what they want to do.
We have faced the pandemic, there is hope at the end of the tunnel now, we have been able to come together and stand together against this virus. If we can stand up to a virus, we can stand up to this government as well. That’s why we have our slogan “Front Line Heroes Shouldn’t Get Zeros.”
By frontline workers, we mean public service workers, and I include workers in the private sector as well, like those in grocery stores, retail and others who do phenomenal work. Having a base salary for everyone that’s decent is like the rising tide that lifts all boats.
It can’t go on the way it is. We have retention and recruitment crises in almost every area of public service. The government of New Brunswick does not recognize this problem and it is not its desire to solve it either.
It is not a new problem in the Maritimes. Many people who have wanted to improve their working conditions have moved away. New Brunswick has had some population declines in the last few years. People of working age are leaving in large numbers. Those who stay are the older people who need care, but there are fewer people of working age who stay because they want to make a life elsewhere.
Things have changed a lot in the public sector. Before, in the 1970s and 1980s, a worker wanted to finish his or her career in the public service, with a good pension, a good job, a good wage. This includes workers in the trades, such as welders and others. People did everything they could to get a job in the public sector. Now it’s the other way around. The private sector wants the province to cover the costs of training, wants the province to pick up the young people who come out of schools and community colleges, do their apprenticeship years and then have them end up in the private sector. Big corporate giants like Irving have put a lot of pressure on the provincial government to reverse the situation so that the private sector can have its workers trained from the public purse. It’s a form of outsourcing labour costs by large corporations.
I think that working for the public sector is something that makes one very proud. But working conditions and wages have declined. Workers deserve better wages and working conditions. That is the issue. CUPE made it very clear to the Premier that it does not agree with the wage freeze/restriction mandate the Higgs government wants to impose on public sector workers.
(Translated from original French by Workers’ Forum. Photos: WF)