Union leadership is calling out New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs for his plan to use a wage-freeze for non-unionized public sector workers as a template in bargaining negotiations.
Higgs confirmed earlier this week that the province has imposed a one-year wage-freeze on workers in the public service and relayed his intention to pursue a similar blueprint for unionized workers during a meeting with union leadership on Friday.
“I think everyone wants to do their part so this is just one way to say, ‘look we’re going to hold the line,’ we’re going to try and stay under control here even though we’re behind the eight-ball financially,” Higgs told reporters on Friday.
In recognition of declining revenues and rising expenses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Higgs is pitching a four-year contract that would feature one year with no raise followed by a modest one-per-cent raise in the other three.
The proposal was not greeted warmly by union leaders.
“Members are going ballistic,” said Brien Watson, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees for New Brunswick.
“Heroes do not deserve zeros, and that’s exactly what they’re getting.”
CUPE N.B. represents about 20,000 workers in the province who do not currently have a contract, including nearly 10,000 people in the N.B. Council of Hospital Unions.
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Leadership is also accusing Higgs of negotiating in bad faith through the media, noting that Higgs told reporters about the wage-freeze pitch prior to the meeting scheduled for Friday afternoon.
The Maritime regional director for CUPE, Sandy Harding, said that the wage-freeze proposal is insulting to front-line workers who have played an important role in the province’s success during the pandemic.
“This is a slap in the face and that’s how our members are feeling,” said Harding.
“During the election, Higgs made it sound like a one-person show, what great work he did to get us through the pandemic. The reality is that was front-line workers who stepped forward, who got us through the pandemic at risk to themselves, at risk to their families. That’s how much you think of us?”
Opposition parties are panning the proposal as well. Interim Liberal leader Roger Melanson noted an ongoing pattern with Higgs’ relationship with unions in the province.
“The premier has an ideology that services need to be cut and reduced,” Melanson said. “He’s using this pandemic as a pretext, or as an umbrella, to justify all of what he actually always wanted to do.”
Green leader David Coon questioned whether Higgs’s plan is actually applicable to the individual negotiation situations.
“I don’t think it can be applied that way because each of those locals and the workers in those locals, the situation is different based on how long they’re been without on contract, based on their particular occupation and responsibilities,” Coon said.
“I think it’s problematic for the premier to open up the negotiations in public with what he’s saying about a zero or a wage freeze for a year.”
The New Brunswick Tory government had not set a bargaining timeline as of Friday.
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