More than 22,000 public sector workers in New Brunswick have voted overwhelmingly to go on strike. The combination of the eroding standard of living, the burden carried by these workers during the pandemic, and the recent attacks by the Higgs government has pushed the situation to a breaking point. To fight these attacks, the union leaders must organize an all-out strike and connect with the anger of the broader working class in New Brunswick.

Deteriorating conditions

These 22,000 public sector workers are represented by 10 CUPE locals. Some of these locals have been without contracts with the provincial government for up to four years and have not seen a wage increase of more than one per cent annually for more than 20 years. According to the union, prices have risen by approximately 20 per cent since the last significant wage increase, meaning that real wages have been consistently eroded. 

Low wages have directly led to the current crisis of recruitment and retention in the public sector, especially in public health. Trained public health workers are more and more leaving the province for provinces paying more, as health-care workers in New Brunswick are among the lowest paid in the country. Additionally, Premier Blaine Higgs limited the number of required workers in private care homes in the province and undemocratically removed the right to strike of the long-term care home workers two years ago, leading to the further deepening of the crisis. The pandemic compounded this issue with longer hours, more risks, more patients, etc. with the same measly wages. Because of these factors, many workers on the front lines are leaving the sector or retiring early due to overwork. This criminal mismanagement of the pandemic by the government led to the current and most deadly fourth wave with several outbreaks in the long-term care sector.

Negotiations deadlock

The 10 CUPE locals separately entered negotiations with the government over the last year and all hit a deadlock. The Conservative government of Higgs refuses to budge on the question of wages. Due to the deadlock in negotiations, all 10 locals have organized themselves into the Centralized Bargaining Team to collectively negotiate wages with the government. The main demand of the CUPE Centralized Bargaining Team is a five per cent wage increase every year for four years, or 20 per cent in total, to keep up with inflation. The government has obstinately opposed any wage increase that would allow the workers to make up for their real wages which have been eroded by inflation over the years. With increasing inflation, this struggle is more important than ever. 

The government’s first offer, in December 2020, was a wage freeze for one year followed by an annual one per cent wage increase for three years. After fruitless negotiations in the start of 2021, CUPE’s bargaining team sent Higgs a 100-day ultimatum to offer real wage increases or face province-wide labour action. During this time the union organized a public campaign culminating in a province-wide march in support of the workers.

The end of the ultimatum period was on Labour Day, Sept. 6. In the preceding week, the government made two offers to the union. The first offer included annual wage increases of one per cent over four years, then two per cent for the fifth and sixth years, which was equally rejected by the bargaining team. The second offer was for annual increases of 1.25 per cent for the first four years, then two per cent for the fifth and sixth years, with added concessions on pensions and transferring jobs from union to management. This was also rejected. The union and the government are still far apart in terms of wage increases. The measly 1.25 per cent increase proposed by Higgs means a significant pay cut in real wages when compared to the skyrocketing inflation index of 4.4 per cent.

Higgs wants to make the workers pay

The reason given by the Higgs government for these effective wage cuts is that the province can’t afford it. This is interesting because while the public sector workers have not had a living wage increase since 2012, as the Liberal and Conservative provincial governments of the last decade were also claiming poverty, the very same governments were able to scrounge up hundreds of millions for the big bosses. This corporate welfare took on many forms over the years such as $100 million in electricity subsidies to pulp mills, wage subsidies to large businesses, over $21 million in forgivable loans to call centres, tens of millions of dollars in rebates on corporate property taxes for Irving oil refinery and headquarters and drops in corporate taxes, among many other examples. Let us be clear and call these what they are: handouts. It is therefore clear that while the government has been refusing to raise public sector wages in any meaningful way, they have had no problem opening the state coffers to private corporations. 

However, with the province around $14 billion in debt, 25 per cent above the national average per capita, this cannot be ignored and someone has to pay. Based on the previous experience outlined above, we can bet that the government won’t be making the bosses pay for this crisis. This is why the Higgs government has been desperately pushing its austerity plan onto the workers. This also explains why there was little to no support for workers during the height of the pandemic as New Brunswick spent the least per capita of any province on pandemic relief programs. 

In his quest to attack the workers and the unions of New Brunswick, the premier used public funds to create full-page ads in all the daily newspapers in the province and in many radio stations across the province on Sept. 10. These ads misrepresented the demands of the union and discredited the real problems brought up by the workers. They portrayed the unionized public sector workers as greedy and sowed divisions between them and the private sector workers who receive lower wages and benefits for similar jobs. These anti-union attacks are just one of the nasty tricks up Higgs’s sleeve when it comes to union-busting and strike breaking. Higgs was in the management of Irving Oil during a long and bitter strike of oil refinery workers from 1994 to 1996 where many such tactics were used. The divisive tactics used by the government and the big bosses are the same and must be combated directly by working class solidarity.

By saying that the workers keeping the province running during the deadliest wave of the pandemic should tighten their belts once more while giving handouts to the bosses, Higgs is sending a clear message to the working class of New Brunswick: you will pay for this crisis. 

Lessons from the 1992 public sector general strike

The workers of New Brunswick are no strangers to militantly fighting back against the government and their corporate friends. Perhaps the most relevant example to look at is the public sector general strike of 1992. What set off the strike was that the McKenna Liberal government passed the Expenditure Management Act which canceled previously negotiated wage increases for public sector workers. The following year, the government implemented wage caps of one per cent to two per cent a year in 1991 and 1992. The reason for this was not so different from the situation today. Faced with reduced transfer payments from the federal government and tough economic times, the government sought to pass the burden onto the backs of public sector workers.

In response, the Coalition of Public Employees was formed to organize a fightback against the attacks. The coalition gained broad support from other unions, the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and the general public with a political slogan of “In McKenna No Trust”. In May 1992, both CUPE N.B. and the New Brunswick Nurses Union voted to go on strike if the new legislation was not withdrawn. As the unions were technically in contract, this represented an illegal strike. 

While the nurses’ union dropped out of the strike, in June 1992 CUPE N.B. organized picket lines across the province. The workers picketed everywhere from schools and hospitals to the liquor stores and highway garages. In response, the government quickly acquired an injunction against the picket lines and threatened the union with fines. McKenna even went as far as threatening to decertify CUPE N.B. 

However, at the end of the day, the strike proved effective as support poured in from all over the province. After the four-day strike, the government was isolated and forced to back down. They agreed to exempt CUPE N.B. from the wage freeze and negotiated larger wage increases in the future. Additionally, no fines were handed out to the union or any of the workers who withheld their labour in what was technically an illegal strike. The lessons from the 1992 public sector general strike should be studied to help guide the struggles to come.

Strike to win!

Declining living conditions is all this present system can give to workers in the coming period. We should therefore have no illusions into thinking that we can convince the Higgs government through negotiations to simply hand public sector workers significant wage increases. The Higgs government and their capitalist backers will only concede to our demands if forced to do so—just as the McKenna government was in 1992. The best way to accomplish this is by showing the government who actually runs the province.

The union leaders in New Brunswick must decisively mobilize the ranks for strike action. For the movement to truly defeat the Higgs government, the strike needs to be spread to the rest of the working class. The strike needs to encompass the nurses who are also in stagnant negotiations with the government, other public sector unions and the rest of the working class as a whole. The workers of New Brunswick have all to gain from a successful fightback against this government. 

Let’s build the strike to stop the Higgs government in its tracks!