Thousands attend rally outside N.B. legislature in support of striking CUPE workers
Thousands of striking public sector workers marched through the streets of Fredericton on Tuesday - their latest move in a labour dispute that’s now entered day five.
Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and supporters gathered outside the New Brunswick legislature, just as the legislature resumed the session that was adjourned in June.
According to the Fredericton Police Force, over 5,000 people attended Tuesday's rally.
On Monday, Premier Blaine Higgs said his government cancelled the throne speech, which was expected to start a new session on Tuesday. The cancellation gives his government two extra days to get legislation passed, which could include back-to-work legislation.
Higgs said he didn’t intend to introduce the legislation Tuesday, but it was a possibility.
As the legislature resumed, the CUPE crowd could be heard inside, on the floor.
“This legislature should have the authority to order him back to the table,” said Green Party Leader David Coon, encouraging Higgs to return to negotiations with CUPE during a members’ statement.
When asked by reporters Tuesday afternoon, the premier said he’s open to returning to the negotiating table.
“I think before the end of this week there would be a scheduled meeting and we decide how we go forward,” he said.
But Higgs said he’ll be discussing his next steps first with his cabinet.
President of CUPE N.B., Stephen Drost, said they’re ready to resume negotiations.
“They know we’re here, they know how to get a hold of us,” said Drost.
The New Brunswick government is offering an 8.5 per cent pay increase over five years – which would cost the province about $55 million more each year.
CUPE is asking for a three per cent increase each year, for four years – which would cost the province about $77 million more.
“The membership have been very, very clear, these are the lowest paid of the lowest paid – three per cent to our workers, versus two per cent to someone making a lot more, is significantly different,” said Drost.
Higgs has said the province can't afford to pay workers what their union is asking, but Drost says the government is less concerned about money and more interested in attacking public servants.
“We presented CUPE with benefits over and above just wage increases, and I sincerely hope they are considering the entire value of our offer and how that benefits their members,” said Higgs.
In an interview with CTV Atlantic on Tuesday evening, Premier Blaine Higgs said he feels the province is offering a fair deal to workers on behalf of taxpayers.
He says he thinks most New Brunswickers would be impressed with the offer the province has made.
"I think when we let the public know about the package, the total package and all the benefits that go with it and, particularly, if you look at pensions and health and dental and all that, people will look at that and say 'Wow, 65 per cent of New Brunswickers don't have a pension like that.' Higgs said. "They're the ones paying the bill. So I'm trying to find the balance here, because it's all the taxpayers that are footing this bill, so it has to be acceptable."
Higgs says he is eager to get back to the table and hopes a deal can be hammered out before the end of the week.
The strike involves 22,000 public sector workers, including school bus drivers, custodians, mechanics, some health-care workers, educational support staff, and workers in transportation, corrections and the community college system.
The province says the CUPE strike continues to impact services across the province in health, transportation, laundry, correctional services and other areas.
“We are feeling increased pressure on our essential services across the province as a result of CUPE’s strike,” said Higgs. “The health, safety and wellbeing of New Brunswickers remain our top priority and we are continuously assessing the impact and whether further action is required.”
With files from The Canadian Press.