New Brunswick workers seek solution to crisis in recruitment and retention

Marches Across the Province in Support of Public Sector Workers


Fredericton, August 28, 2021 (Fred Hahn)


Marches across the province in support of public sector workers


Sackville, August 28, 2021 (Bruce Wark)

On August 28, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) New Brunswick organized marches across the province to thank and support the front-line essential workers who provided critical public services to the residents of New Brunswick during the COVID-19 pandemic and are still doing so. Marches were held in 14 communities with the broad participation of public sector workers, their families and friends. The marches in Saint John, Moncton, Fredericton, Edmundston, Saint-Quentin, Campbellton, Bathurst, Tracadie, Perth-Andover, Woodstock, St. Stephen, Sussex, Sackville and Miramichi were in support of CUPE New Brunswick’s 100 days campaign.

The marches took place a week after the government and the union agreed to central bargaining on wages.

On August 27, CUPE New Brunswick held a day-long Bargaining Forward Summit, with over 100 CUPE bargaining team members in New Brunswick present. Union members and the public could watch the event online from the live feed provided by the union.


What participants in Fredericton march had to say

In Fredericton, the NB Media Co-op interviewed some of the approximately 250 marchers. Here are some quotes:

Gail Wylie, Former Civil Servant

“I’m just here in support of all the civil servants. I used to be one. And I thought about them often as the COVID was going on. I thought I couldn’t have coped as they’ve done. They’re so creative, and they’re so committed, and I just really appreciate the fact that they kept things going. And especially the health care. I think we should honour the fact that they are taking risks and they’re so talented at being able to adapt.”

Sonny Levasseur, CUPE 2745

“I’m a zone delegate for the Oromocto-Fredericton region [education support staff]. I’m here to show my support for CUPE. I want to support all public sector workers, support all front-line workers, that’s basically it.”

Sandy Harding, CUPE Maritimes Regional Director

“I’m here for two reasons really. One is that I don’t think the public service workers in the frontline, essential workers, whether they’re unionized or not, have been recognized for the work they’ve done in this province. So that’s one reason: I think they need a thank-you. They’ve held this province together during a pandemic. And the other reason is, I’m a mom of five, who has continued to say that I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to keep my children in this province and not tell them to go out to Alberta to get better wages. And I feel this fight that we’re in now can impact us for generations to come. If we do not do something and invest in our public service here, and our public service workers, we’ll continue to lose our children to other provinces, which has an impact. And I’m not willing as a mom to have my children dispersed all over North America because they’re going to find a better job. I want them in this province. I would love that they work in the public service, and I want to encourage them. So that’s the two reasons.”

Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario

“I’m here from Ontario to show solidarity with our members in New Brunswick. What’s happening here is incredibly inspiring because frontline workers, public sector workers are facing the same challenges. Whether we’re in Ontario and New Brunswick, Alberta, across the country, we’re the folks who got our communities through the pandemic, in incredibly stressful, difficult situations. And now, governments seem to think that somehow, we’re the ones who should have to pay the price for that. And I’m so proud of our members here and the communities here for standing with them and organizing to say, ‘No, we’re not going to stand for that anymore. We’re going to demand better.'”

(Photo: NB Media Coop)


New Brunswick workers’ 100 days campaign

The aim of the New Brunswick workers’ 100 days campaign is to break the mandate of wage freezes and wage restrictions that has been imposed for over 15 years by successive governments. In the CUPE workers’ negotiations for the renewal of their collective agreements, some of which expired as long as four years ago, the current Conservative majority government is insisting upon imposing wage freezes and restricting wage increases to levels that are well below the rate of inflation and are actually wage cuts. Workers firmly reject this dictate, pointing out that this means further impoverishment for them, the worsening of the retention and recruitment problem in the public sector and increased migration of New Brunswick workers to other provinces.

The 100 days campaign for negotiated wage increases that workers deem acceptable ends on Labour Day, September 6. There will be more than 22,000 CUPE members whose collective agreements have expired who will be in a legal position to hold a strike vote if the government persists in trying to impose its dictate.

The New Brunswick government is indifferent to the workers’ arguments as it is blinded by the neo-liberal anti-social outlook that persists in privatizing social programs and institutions and treating workers as disposable. They accuse workers of harming the “taxpayers” when they speak out and fight to improve their wages and working conditions. Given that it is government pay-the-rich schemes which are harming taxpayers and undermining public services, these arguments are contemptible. Providing modern conditions and wages for the delivery of the services that people need is crucial. The government wants to have a free hand to further privatize health care and public services to enrich narrow private interests and the workers are opposing that and defending public right.


Interview

On the burning issue of workers’ migration out of New Brunswick

– Daniel Légère –

Daniel Légère is the President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour.

Workers’ Forum: Migration of workers outside the province has been a long-standing problem in New Brunswick. You have often spoken about this. What is your view on how the problem poses itself?

Daniel Légère: In New Brunswick we have seen big industries shutting down, mines shutting down, mills shutting down. These industries employed a lot of very highly skilled workers, tradespeople. When the industries closed there was nothing left for them in New Brunswick that paid comparable wages. Two years ago, we had the lockout of the smelter workers in Belledune by Glencore. There were a number of those workers that you did not see on the picket lines. They went out west. They had to pay the bills. In the course of the lockout, Glencore shut down the smelter for good, and that also contributed to the migration out West.

As you know, New Brunswick is characterized by its low wage economy. Government and businesses do everything in their power to keep wages as low as possible to attract businesses with the promise of maximum profits. We are in a situation now where many workers’ retirement plan will be declaring personal bankruptcy. Workers are making less and less money. Every year they get further behind and many are looking after their families by using their credit cards. At some point it catches up to them and ends up in bankruptcy. At a convention that I attended about a year ago a worker went to the mike and bluntly said that her retirement plan was personal bankruptcy.

We are seeing a continuous exodus out of the province. This started about 20 years ago. It has been compounded even more by competition from outside the province where wages are higher. Employers in New Brunswick do not want to pay, and that is not just in the private sector, not just in the mines or in the mills. We see an exodus of nurses, we see an exodus of psychologists, of psychiatrists. People don’t want to be stuck in this low wage, no benefit economy that we have in New Brunswick.

That is why we find ourselves in the position we are in right now in health care. There is a shortage of over a thousand nurses in our health care system. These are positions that are vacant. That is not counting nurses who are on stress leave, or sick leave, or maternity leave. These are just vacant positions that are not being filled.

We see the consequences. Today we see emergency rooms in small hospitals being shut down on the weekends. Some have completely shut down. We see maternity wards being closed for weeks on end and expectant mothers being told “You can’t come to our hospital. We just don’t have the staff. You’ll have to travel further.”

This is not just a problem in hospitals. The biggest problem is in nursing homes and it manifested itself throughout the pandemic across the country, especially in privately run for-profit homes where the owners are trying to get rich on the backs of workers, paying them low wages and having as few staff as possible. They cut corners to save money. That is where the effects of the pandemic were the worst, in private nursing homes.

But this problem exists in our public nursing homes too. For 30 years we have known that they need higher worker/residents ratios, that there is just not enough staff. The staff shortage has a domino effect. The more you work short, the more you burn out. Fewer and fewer people are willing to work in that environment with low pay and a constant shortage of workers. The problem keeps compounding and the situation is getting worse and worse.

Personally, I think governments are deliberately letting the public system fail. They will reach a point where they say that the public can’t deliver the services any more, that they have to turn the system over to the private sector.

The province’s solution to the shortage of workers is to try to fast track immigration, to recruit workers whose working and living conditions are worse than what we have here. Government is talking about providing permanent residency to immigrants. We will see. Some time ago, I attended a business conference that was framed as a workers’ forum. It was a brainstorming session for businesses on how to get cheap labour. A representative of a tech company told the story of how he made use of recruitment programs in countries like India to get workers to come here and work for long hours for a lot less than what it would cost to hire someone in New Brunswick. He said that the way he is keeping them is with the promise of status, the promise of immigration. He uses the carrot of immigration, he said, to keep them working for almost nothing. This is horrible. And this was said in a public forum. This is a race to the bottom and it has to be reversed.

As long as New Brunswick maintains a low wage economy, with precarious work and precarious workers, we will continue to have an exodus of workers out of the province.

These articles are reposted from Workers’ Forum, September 1, 2021 – No. 77

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