All schools in New Brunswick will move to online learning beginning Monday after the union representing 22,000 public-sector workers went on strike Friday morning.
In a news conference, Premier Blaine Higgs and Education Minister Dominic Cardy expressed their disappointment with the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ decision to strike, which caused the province to close schools on Friday.
Mr. Higgs said it left parents scrambling to find alternate arrangements and kids missing out on Halloween school activities. The strike is also affecting ferry services and correctional facilities.
Those on strike include school bus drivers, custodians, mechanics, some healthcare workers in rehabilitation and therapy, educational support staff, workers in transportation and infrastructure and community college workers
Despite threats by union leaders that a strike was imminent, Mr. Cardy said he received no formal notification of a walkout on Friday.
He said the only option was to close schools.
While teachers and other school staff will continue to report for work, Mr. Cardy said having unknown staffing levels means students will have to move to online learning.
Steve Drost, president of the New Brunswick branch of CUPE said the union’s 22,000 members haven’t had a proper raise in 15 years and remain among the lowest paid in the country.
“They’ve fallen so far behind the cost of living,” Mr. Drost said in an interview. “They are prepared to do whatever is necessary to get a fair wage.”
Neither side is budging, which means workers are taking shifts from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.
“Honestly, it’s kind of sad that we have to come to this point,” said Owen Morehouse, a school bus driver.
“Especially when they’re talking about having a $38 million surplus. But it’s just, this is what we have to do, this is the point we’re driving to”
Before talks broke off, the union was seeking a 12 percent rise over four years, with no conditions attached. The government confirmed Thursday it was offering an 8.5 percent wage increase over a five-year period.
The provincial government abruptly walked away from contract talks Tuesday night, the union said.
Premier Blaine Higgs has said his government is committed to working with CUPE to reach a fair deal, but he’s prepared to order the strikers back to work if necessary.
“If our schools and our health-care system are targeted by strikes, this will cause pain and harm the safety and security of New Brunswickers,” Mr. Higgs said in a statement Thursday before the walkout.
“We are prepared to take necessary action, possibly including legislation, to keep New Brunswickers safe and healthy with access to essential services, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Mr. Drost said Mr. Higgs’s threat was unnecessary.
“We have designation levels to ensure the safety, security and protection of the public,” the union leader said, referring to the province’s essential worker rules.
“Those (essential worker) levels are negotiated between the employer and the union. So there’s no need to (use back-to-work legislation). That’s an abuse of power.”
Earlier this week, Education Minister Dominic Cardy wrote to students and families saying the government understood that a strike would be stressful.
“However, I want to assure you that our experience managing the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the past year has demonstrated that the education system is flexible and adaptable,” Mr. Cardy said.
“School districts have contingency plans in place to ensure learning continues, but families must be prepared for potential disruptions in their normal routines.”
The minister went on to say that students should be prepared for “sustained home learning,” and he said students who rely on educational assistants would lose access to that service.
Mr. Higgs has said the government’s offer corresponds with agreements reached this fall with three other bargaining units. As well, his government has pledged to increase the pay of casual workers by 20 percent, improve pension coverage and provide an average of $3,200 in retroactive pay.
The union has pointed out that the government announced its fourth consecutive budget surplus earlier this month.
CUPE representatives say they will be at different locations over the weekend and they expect the strike will continue into next week.
On Thursday, the union said the public would get notice before the strike action began.
“I think everything has pretty much been set in motion,” said Mr. Drost on Thursday. “The government is refusing to negotiate fairly with these groups, and they are preparing for job action as we speak.”
About 22,000 CUPE members from 10 different locals voted 94 percent in favour of strike action earlier this month. Talks broke down Tuesday evening when the provincial government walked away from negotiations.
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