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Higgs, CUPE confront one another on front steps of N.B. legislature

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FREDERICTON -

Canadian Union of Public Employees and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs took to the steps of the province’s legislature Friday morning – each trying to pitch their offers to hundreds of striking workers standing outside.

It was a dramatic moment after 24 hours of what appeared to be positive movement on the labour file.

CUPE NB president Stephen Drost said a leadership team did receive an offer by the Higgs government Thursday evening, and presented it to their bargaining team.

“We worked through until 2:20 last night and we made a counter-proposal. I reached out to the representative for the premier and I said I have very important information for you. We are prepared to send our members back to work so that we can get this deal solved but we need to hear from you.”

He said the two sides went back and forth a bit – but didn’t hear anything after 4:03 a.m.

“Once again, tricks are being played. Well, you want a deal, you come out right now and let’s settle this,” Drost said while sitting at a table in front of the legislature.

Three minutes later, Higgs showed up, making his way through the crowd of CUPE members, papers in hand.

Drost went through their counter-offer and then Higgs asked for the microphone. The premier stood on the steps addressing the crowd.

“You’re taking our pensions,” shouted a member.

“No, let’s talk about that, let’s talk about that. I came here in good faith because I respect every one of you as part of our ability…” Higgs was then drowned out by horns and heckles.

A member then shouted, “Okay, let’s listen.”

Higgs told the crowd he wanted to make his offer public and ensure the members could read exactly what they were proposing.

“What we said is we want, as a condition, all employees who are members of the union to be able to participate in a pension plan…that’s what this document says,” he said.

Eventually, Higgs asked if there were any questions, but CUPE asked for the microphone back.

Drost called the exchange ‘very bizarre.’

“This has been so unusual, this round of bargaining, we’ve never seen anything like this ever,” Drost said, after the premier left. “This is not about pensions. We’ve been trying to negotiate wages for three and a half years, and we asked him to put that aside. Let’s deal with the wages.”

When asked what’s next, Drost said if Higgs would accept their counter-offer, they would send members back to work immediately.

Premier, health and justice ministers to hold news conference at 2:45 p.m.

During question period Friday morning, the premier did acknowledge a counter-offer had been made by CUPE.

He didn’t give specifics, but Higgs did say his government is reviewing its options.

The strike is in its eighth day, and has interrupted health-care services and closed schools.

Higgs said his priority is on ensuring health-care workers can get back to work.

He has called a Friday afternoon news conference with his justice and health ministers and it’s expected he will have something to say on a back-to-work order for health-care workers.

"We will address the issues in our hospitals. We need people back to work in our health-care system," he said.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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