Ever the faithful servant of the Irvings and other capitalists, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs’ Progressive Conservative government has tabled pro-scab legislation. By modifying the Public Service Labour Relations Act, the government is now giving itself the power to replace “designated essential workers” with scabs in future strikes. This open attack by an extremely unpopular government will surely harm, rather than help, public services, and must be fought by all workers’ organizations in the province.
If the class bias in this legislation is not blatant enough, unions will now be required to give 72 hours advance notice of any strike action, whereas the government only has to give 24 hours notice in the case of a lockout! If a dispute is sent to binding arbitration, arbitrators will now legally be required to take the government’s fiscal situation into consideration before awarding a contract. In a “situation” where successive Liberal and Conservative governments have irresponsibly dragged the province into a $14 billion morass of debt to date, the message is clear: don’t give the workers a dime! Never mind that it is corporate tax cuts and bailouts that have gotten the province into this hole in the first place—it is the public service and the workers dedicated to running it every day who must instead foot the bill.
Labour Minister Trevor Holder claims the bill is merely designed to bring “clarity” in regards to rules surrounding essential workers, not to promote the use of scabs or bust unions. These weasel words should not fool anyone. While the legislation does propose to lift the current ban on organizing pickets outside of workplaces, this ban is largely expected to be ruled as unconstitutional through the courts eventually anyway. Holder and Higgs are simply trying to get ahead of this ruling in order to appear to be magnanimously balancing the scales with the current legislation.
Payback for 2021 strike
This latest attack comes on the heels of a 16-day long public sector strike just over a year ago, in which 10 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals came together to take on the government’s austerity agenda. Despite being sold short by its leadership in the end, the fact that these unions came together in a common front and went on strike in the first place marked an important step forward in the struggle against a determined enemy.
Higgs himself is a former executive of Irving Oil, part of a multi-billion dollar empire owned by the Irving family. Until recently, the Irvings owned New Brunswick’s three English-language daily newspapers, as well as its only French-language daily. To state that they are incredibly influential in provincial politics is an understatement, to say the least. With this said, it is not merely the monopolistic position of the Irvings in the New Brunswick economy and politics that is the root of the problem. They are merely the most outstanding representatives of the Maritime capitalist class as a whole, and their monopoly position is the natural outcome of their success. They have achieved this success by ruthlessly crushing workers wherever they have raised their heads, such as in the 27-month long strike at Irving Oil in 1996.
During the CUPE strike last year, there was at one point a dramatic confrontation between Higgs and striking workers on the steps of the province’s legislature. Surely thinking himself the master of the situation, Higgs boldly addressed the workers, implying that they should be grateful that there was any offer on the table at all. In response, the workers roundly heckled and booed him off the steps, leading him to retreat back into his ivory tower.
As part of the agreement that was eventually reached, the government was supposed to deliver back pay to many employees who had been working out of contract, in some cases for years. According to its own law, this was to be implemented within 90 days. Despite sitting on a $500 million dollar surplus, the government dragged its heels and let the deadline pass, seemingly more concerned with workers being overpaid as a result of back pay miscalculations than being paid at all!
Fake opposition to scab legislation
As can be seen from the above, the current legislation is clearly part of the wider war by the New Brunswick elite on public sector workers. Having been put on the defensive during last year’s struggle, they are now attempting to turn the tide and better enable themselves to crush any future strikes through the deployment of scabs and other restrictions.
Opposition to the bill has been widespread, with even the establishment Liberals jumping on board. Liberal labour critic Keith Chiasson in particular commented that “for something that’s substantial like what they are proposing, it’s a slap in the face to unions.” Unsurprisingly, however, Chiasson refused to say if a future Liberal government would even repeal the bill! Such hypocrisy is entirely typical of a party which traditionally campaigns from the left and governs from the right, and is at the end of the day just as much in the pocket of the Irvings as the Tories.
Nearly the entire history of New Brunswick has consisted of these two parties taking turns at misrepresenting and oppressing the masses, and the latest round of the carousel may be well underway. An August 2022 poll put the Liberals and their new leader Susan Holt in the lead with 41 per cent support, followed by the Conservatives at 30 per cent. Two months earlier, another poll showed Higgs to be the third most unpopular premier in the country, with only a 33 per cent approval rating, just ahead of the now turfed Jason Kenney!
Where will the real fight come from?
Leaders of the major unions in the province have certainly recognized the legislation for what it represents. New Brunswick Union (NBU) president Susie Proulx-Daigle stated that it means “we’re going backwards, for sure. It’s an assault on the labour movement.” It is one thing to recognize an attack, however, and another thing entirely to respond to it effectively with words linked to action.
The recent CUPE education worker strike in Ontario has shown that mass mobilization, defiance, and the threat of solidarity strike action can defeat even the most draconian legislation when the full force of the working-class and its organizations are brought to bear. Following in this example, any scabs that Higgs tries to use in the future under this law should be met with the business end of a hard picket line. It is through this method that the true meaning of “picket lines mean do not cross” will be discovered.
In the here-and-now, mass demonstrations should be organized to let Higgs know that this legislative assault will not go unanswered. Four CUPE locals already have expired contracts at present, and two more are set to expire next year, along with the NBU. These unions must prepare vigorously for strike action, including holding mass meetings of its members to inspire, educate, and prepare the ranks to fight as hard and as long as necessary to win. Nothing less than this will be sufficient for the workers to prevail against an opponent like Higgs that is determined to crush them. If this means defying unjust laws that are meant to break them in the process, then so be it!